The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan is the latest senior official calling for additional resources for the effort there. Meanwhile, the debate over whether NATO should continue its mission at all has taken off.
This morning’s WaPo contains news that Karl Eikenberry, the recently-installed ambassador who previously commanded ISAF forces as an Army general, has advised that a 60 percent increase in development funding for 2010 will be needed “if we are to show progress in the next 14 months.” At the same time, his military counterpart, General Stanley McChrystal, is widely reported to be considering asking for as many as 45,000 additional troops. And NATO’s new secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has called on the non-American Allies to step up their commitment. And General Sir David Richards, who takes over of head of all British forces later this month, recently allowed that the mission in Afghanistan “might take as long as 30 to 40 years.”
All the while, the mission’s scope seems to be expanding. As a forthcoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee report notes, “The administration has raised the stakes by transforming the Afghan war from a limited intervention into a more ambitious and potentially risky counter-insurgency.” That’s especially true, as FT’s Daniel Dombey points out, with the Obama administration’s decision to make counter-narcotics a major focus of the strategy.
And the national security community is finally debating what our goals are in Afghanistan and whether they’re worth the cost and commitment. Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, frames the question thusly:
Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget?
I see why keeping al-Qaeda on the ropes matters. But I just don’t really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance.
I fear that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is following a dangerous path of least resistance. Given the assignment to win the war in Afghanistan, of course a military which has been reshaped by its experience in Iraq will turn to COIN doctrine. Once the decision is made to apply a COIN approach, of course the military is going to ask for more troops there, and a long commitment, since it’s always been obvious that really doing COIN in Afghanistan would require vastly more troops than are currently deployed. And then, at each step of the way, there will be a strong tactical argument for expansion and a very difficult sell for any attempt to argue for restraint. Once that iron logic has been accepted, all else follows — and it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.
Atlantic Council contributing editor and ASP fellow Bernard Finel has made a similar argument in these pixels:
It is not clear why [Obama senior terrorism advisor John] Brennan and the administration remain obsessed with terrorists operating out of Afghanistan specifically. Yes, al Qaeda was based there prior to 9/11, but there is nothing particularly significant about Afghanistan that makes a terrorist based there any more dangerous than one based on the Pakistani side of the border… or in Karachi… or really anywhere else. Indeed, I think a compelling case can be made that terrorist operating out of a variety of urban “ungoverned spaces” with close promity to international communications would pose a more immediate danger.
Ohio State political scientist John Mueller put it even more bluntly in Foreign Policy essay titled “How Dangerous are the Taliban? Why Afghanistan is the Wrong War.”
The very notion that al Qaeda needs a secure geographic base to carry out its terrorist operations, moreover, is questionable. After all, the operational base for 9/11 was in Hamburg, Germany. Conspiracies involving small numbers of people require communication, money, and planning — but not a major protected base camp.
To say nothing of the fact that the man al Qaeda Central threat is in the Pak half of AfPak. Or John Mackinlay‘s question as to “whether the British should be so visibly and impulsively campaigning in a region which is also the original homeland of their disaffected Muslim communities,” a debate applicable to some of the other European Allies as well.
To be sure, the war still has plenty of defenders. Anthony Cordesman took to the pages of the Times of London to argue that it’s time to “get serious” about winning. But most of his essay was about the enormity of the obstacles.
The Afghan Government is corrupt, grossly overcentralised, lacking in capacity, and virtually absent in large parts of Afghanistan. The international aid effort continues to pursue unrealistic medium and long-term goals, and many organisations largely ignore the civil side of war fighting. What should be an integrated civil-military effort, focused on winning the war in the field, is a dysfunctional, wasteful mess that is crippled by bureaucratic divisions. Afghan power brokering, national caveats and tensions, and a failure to make good on pledges waste aid resources at every level.
This has created a situation where the Taleban have gone from a defeated group of exiles to a force that has threatened to defeat Nato and the Afghan Government. It has also created a situation where winning the war now requires Nato/ISAF to deal with not one, but six, centres of gravity.
Even a practical set of goals for victory will be difficult to achieve. Nato/ISAF governments will need to be more honest with their peoples, explain the risks and reasons for fighting in more depth, and show why they should have strategic patience and make a long-term commitment.
They must also define victory in achievable terms. Afghanistan cannot become an instant model of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Victory means a reasonable level of security and stability for the Afghan people; a decent standard of living by current Afghan standards; and the end of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for international terrorism. That may not be much to most of the rest of the world, but for the Afghans it means real hope and an end to three decades of war and suffering.
With the ninth anniversary of the war approaching, convincing the publics of war-weary democracies that the slog must continue indefinitely will be a monumental task. Especially since we seem to be closer to the beginning than the end.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.