Thursday, December 04, 2008

How many times to we have to watch this movie?

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman, a sober-minded, conservative military analyst, sounded the alarm. "We are running out of time," he wrote. "We currently are losing, and the trends have been consistent since 2004...we face a crisis in the field--right now." The situation, he said, is far more urgent than anything that can be solved by economic aid or nation-building efforts. "At least during 2009-10, priority must be given to warfighting needs." McKiernan, the US commander, has called for at least four more brigades, perhaps as many as 25,000 troops. He warned that the mission in Afghanistan will require a "sustained commitment" lasting many years, and the United States has announced plans to help more than double the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA), to 134,000 troops. "This is a decades-long project," says Ashley Tellis, a former National Security Council specialist on South Asia, who adds that it will take at least ten years before the United States can withdraw and let the ANA fight its own battles. "The transition alone will take a decade, until you can switch to the ANA," he says.
That's from Bob Dreyfuss, Obama's Afghan Dilemma The Nation 12/03/08. And, unfortunately, it's not a horror movie, it's reality.

My biggest worry about an Obama Presidency at this point is that they will make the mistake of simply escalating the war in Afghanistan without a definite, time-limited exit strategy. Dreyfuss' article goes into some detail about the reasons that it's an untenable goal, beyond the reasonable limits of American power.

I saw someone the other day complaining that because Obama talked about the practical consequences of foreign policy decisions, that mean he was a cynical pragmatist and not an "idealist". It was a dumb argument.

Because the costs and benefits to be reasonably expected are part of deciding whether a war makes sense or not. That's been a part of classical Just War theory since forever. And it's why, even in a necessary war, decisionmakers need a good sense of what the costs and risks are likely to be.

The Afghanistan War needs a complete bottom-up review. As Dreyfuss points out, we went into Afghanistan to neutralize (call or capture) as many Al Qa'ida cadres as we could. But Cheney and Rummy just wanted to get that mission out of the way as quickly as possible so they could invade Iraq. So the benefits we gained in terms of the original mission are questionable, although it does seem likely that the operation badly damaged Bin Laden's core Al Qa'ida organization, maybe permanently.

Now we're a good seven years and counting into the war. And we're seeing big-time mission creep. Obama's team including Gates the Holdover should be asking some serious and basic questions, among them:

Does the US have any real interest in fighting the collection of tribal warlords in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the Pentagon calls "the Taliban"?

How long will that take?

How many American troops will it require? For how long?

How much can we reasonably expect other NATO countries to contribute? And for how long?

Do we need to consider western Pakistan part of the main theater of the war?

What are the downsides to staying in Afghanistan for five, ten, 20 years?

What are the risks in continuing to fight a war in Pakistan: on the government, on the region, on the American reputation and alliances?

As Dreyfuss explains in his article, if the goal is to turn Afghanistan into a stable nation with no warring warlords and the government being both perceived as legitimate and having a monopoly of force (i.e., no private militias running around shooting up each other and the government), we're realistically talking about decades.

Or, in other words, that kind of goal would require the US to maintain something like a colonial relationship in Afghanistan for what amounts to indefinitely.

In a situation like this, the fact of the US engaging in a protracted war there is in itself damaging to our national security. At some point, and much sooner than later, the US needs to say, okay, we've done what we can do here. The costs are now exceeding the possible benefits. And here's the schedule on which we're leaving.

A mission to strike Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida group and even to install a government that would not be friendly to them made sense - in 2001. Doing what we're doing now, fighting an open-ended war against local guerrillas and warlords, is exactly the mistake the Soviet Union made there in the 1980s.

And really, our current situation is a lot like the situation the Soviets faced in 1989 in Afghanistan itself. Our casualties are rising. We have virtually no support among the population. Nor does our allied government. And unless we're ready to virtually annex the place for an indefinite period of time, we're not going to be able to accomplish much more than we have.

It's time to declare victory and take American troops out of there. Not put more in.

Dreyfuss argues that there really is a meaningful possibility for a constructive exit strategy:

India is deeply involved in Afghanistan now, and its role there is causing a degree of paranoia in Pakistan. India, along with Iran and Russia, helped oust the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001. India has provided $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan since then, and it has opened consulates in four Afghan cities that, Pakistan fears, could be bases for Indian intelligence. It is against that threat, historically, that Pakistan has supported right-wing Islamists. But India is a power with global ambitions, a thriving economy and powerful armed forces, and it is becoming clear in Pakistan that it can no longer compete with India, which is causing an outbreak of realism inside the Pakistani army. Ashley Tellis, now of the Carnegie Endowment, has had extensive contacts with Pakistan's military. "The mainstream of the Pakistani army no longer sees India as the main threat," he says. "There may be some of the far right, among the Islamists, who believe that India is the central danger." But Tellis says they are a minority. "To protect their institutional interests, they know that they must have a rapprochement with India."

The opportunity for a dialogue with elements of the Taliban and the possibility of a peace process between Pakistan and India constitute the true exit strategy for the United States in Afghanistan. But to nail down a deal with the insurgents, the United States will have to offer them what they most want, namely, a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. "What the insurgents do seem to agree about is that foreigners shouldn't run their country, and that the country should be run according to the principles of Islam," says Chas Freeman.
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