Pat Lang observes that it is not at all clear that the Obama administration has a clear strategy for Afghanistan (Iraq and Afghanistan Policy 04/26/09):
The announced Obama policy set the goals as essentially negative actions intended to confound and disrupt America's enemies. Covert action, limited SOF commando strikes, political support for our friends, some measure of basic infrastructure aid (roads, etc), these would be the kind of tools in such an effort. In spite of the announcement of these reasonable goals and implied actions, there continues to be a constant drum beat of talk, leaks, panel discussions in which people both within and without the administration insist that the real policy is a full blown COIN [counterinsurgency] campaign in which the United States will commit itself to an effort to create a socety [sic] in Afghanistan so attractive that rural Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, etc. will support a unifying national government against Islamic zealots who do not believe in the legitmiacy [sic] of national governments at all. Such an effort would be hugely expensive and would last for decades. Well, which is it, Obama Administration, which is it? These two visions of the future are not comptible. [sic] [my emphasis]
The good news here is that if Obama wants to increase the US political and military investment in a situation that cannot turn out well for us, it's better that he's limiting the amount of new "investment".
And I'm happy to hear that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is publicly expressing caution about raising NATO troop levels higher than those already announced in Afghanistan.
ZAKARIA: You once said that the chief lesson you learned from 40 years in government was the limits of power. So, apply that lesson to Afghanistan today.
What does it -- what do you think of -- what are the limits to what America can do in Afghanistan?
GATES: Well, I have been quoted, accurately, as saying I have real reservations about significant further commitments of American military -- of the American military to Afghanistan, beyond what the president has already approved.
The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn't care about civilian casualties. And they couldn't win.
If there's ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience. And I think there's a lot we can learn from that. ...
I think we will have -- between the American military commitment and our coalition partners, the ISAF partners --we will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That's only about 10,000 shy of what the Russians had. And I think we need to think about that. [my emphasis]
I think that we Americans need to stop exagerating [sic] the level of threat to the United States that originates or will originate in Afghanistan. The temptation to see the activities and scheming of takfiri jihadis as parts of a world war between the Islamic "House of War" and the rest of us has caused us to begin to re-design our society(ies) for total war against an all powerful and virtually eternal enemy. ...
In Afghanistan there is always war; war for resources, honor, leadership, authenticity of Islamic identity. The causes of war are endless. There are many different peoples in Afghanistan; Pushtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, Nuristani, etc. etc. etc. Many of these groups speak mutually incomprehensible languages. They are mostly Sunni, but some, like the Hazara, are Shia. What we see now in Afghanistan is NOT a "theater of war" in a "global war on terror." Rather, it is a continuation of the ancient Afghan pattern of traditional warfare among the peoples, their groupings old and new, and sectarian definitions of Islamic truth. The minions of the Al-Qa'ida related zealot groups are scattered and hidden in the "landscape" of ever shifting conflict that is Afghanistan. They are like raisins in a cake. These "raisins" are a danger to the United States. They are a danger but not an "existential" threat to our "way of life" as they are sometimes described.
He actually likes the relatively restrained stated goals that Obama has articulated:
President Obama in his announcement of policy with regard to Afghanistan, said that our goal would be to disrupt, disorganize and destroy our enemies. That is an appropriate goal given the actual size and intensity of the threat. Forget about nation building in Afghanistan. Forget about generational commitments of vast amounts of treasure that we no longer possess.
I'm becoming increasingly dubious of the talk from advocates of COIN. Because for one thing, it's not at all clear that what the Army touts as its totally new COIN strategy integrating all the lessons of COINs past - like France's losing war in Algeria, or the US' losing war in Vietnam - comes down to anything much more than conventional warfare with fewer indiscriminate air strikes and slightly nicer PR. Buying off the Sunni insurgent groups was fine to give a short-term show of success. But it was a relatively short-term fix that threatened to make any Shi'a-Sunni national political reconciliation more difficult. It may have worked in the opposite direction. And sectarian violence has shown some worrisome signs of escalating significantly in Baghdad this month.
Also, I should point out that while Pat Lang cautions about exaggerating the threat from Afghanistan, he embraces the highly questionable concept that the Pushtun tribes in Pakistan could somehow seize control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. His solution?
The nuclear arsenal of Pakistan makes a victory of the hillmen [Pushtuns] unacceptable to the US. As I wrote at the National Journal blog this week, a return to Pakistan Army control of the government and imposition of government control over the border country seems the only acceptable solution and the United States should stop impeding that outcome.
Putting US policy behind a coup in Pakistan would likely draw the US in even deeper to the political and internal military problems of that country. And the Pakistan-is-about-to-fall scenario sounds to me like threat inflation.
But as Obama prepares for important summit meetings in with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, the New York Times is pushing the Pakistani threat on its front page: Pakistan Strife Raises U.S. Doubts on Nuclear Arms by David Sanger 05/03/09.