Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hell and Back

Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there could be trouble. But if I stay, it could be double. Come on and let me know...

The United States is currently trying to decide just what to do in Afghanistan, partly because the US-backed government there is starting to smell fishy (i.e.- corrupt and ineffectual), and partly because of an unexpectedly-declassified assessment of the situation by General Stanley McChrystal, which you can read here. Not too many people have read it, apparently, because the newspaper reports make it sound as if McChrystal is a college student writing home to his parents. "Mom, Dad, things are pretty desperate. I need a lot more money. And, while you're at it, send more army guys. Thanks."

That's not quite the long and the short of it though. McChrystal actually argues in the report that focusing on resources would be missing the point. Instead, the military needs to change its overall strategy in two key ways:
  1. They need to walk the streets, so to speak. The military is too isolated from Afghan villagers and needs to get out of the tanks and spend as much time as possible in the villages interacting with people.
  2. The various military and security forces there, particularly the US forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) need to get on the same page and coordinate their efforts.
Contrary to what's been reported, he places quite an emphasis on the failings of the Afghan government and how it is percieved (rightly, from the sound of it) as illegitimate by the populace. McChrystal believes that time is short for building a workable state and so it has to be now or never. If the ANSF and a legitimate government can be built up, coalition forces can go home. Hypothetically.

One big problem is that coalition troops are fighting three or more insurgent groups that are loosely connected and apparently all working out of Pakistan. Since the US isn't going to invade Pakistan, and the government there is as weak as the government in Afghanistan, it's hard to see how the US is preparing the ANSF for anything but open-ended war with insurgents. Or, if not that, preparing itself for open-ended war with insurgents.

Similarly, most of McChrystal's suggestions seem like they would lead to the US military acting as the police force in Afghanistan. He says they need to be more involved with protecting the individual villagers, which is hard to argue with. But how does "winning" ultimately end up looking different than colonial administration?

One big advantage the US has, over the Soviets for example, is that the populace wants to see the same outcome they do. While McChrystal does describe the finish line- functional government, strong local security, safe villagers- the big problem is that his strategy- local interaction and coordinated efforts- doesn't actually get us to the finish line. Instead, it gets us to a point in which the US acts as the local police, or the country collapses and becomes a haven for terrorists. Which sounds a lot like the language of colonial administration.

Advocates of continued engagement have the same problem: Nobody seems able to explain what winning would look like, but people who want to stay are able to describe in great detail what losing would look like. Not only would the US have failed to protect a country that supports its own aims, but there would be great bloodshed and instability, failure, and the enemy would have a new stronghold. The end of the Vietnam Conflict, then.

More directly, Republicans claim that, if Afghanistan falls, terrorists will be able to mount attacks on the United States, something that, incidentally, is happening already. However, the problem for Obama is, if the US pulls out, and there are any successful attacks on US soil, he will be blamed. Of that you can be sure. Even in the absense of attacks, if he pulls out the troops, Republicans will lose their shit. Admittedly, though, they seem to lose their shit no matter what he does. So, maybe, that's just background noise.

But there are many on the left who want to stay too, if only to fight the "good war" to its conclusion. There's really no doubt that Obama would love to be the President when Bin Laden finally gets killed. And, let's make no mistake- the "insurgents" are the same sort of vicious gangsters who would, without doubt, make life in Afghanistan a living hell once again, if they won. There are plenty of good reasons to want to make the Taliban a non-viable option in the entire region. However, it's hard to see how McChrystal's plan does much more than to forestall the worst.

I'll be honest: it looks like staying is going to be a costly, open-ended, miserable slog; while the results if the US leaves are too horrible to imagine. As Woody Allen once quipped: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

So, what is to be done, if not withdrawal? It sure sounds like open-ended occupation to me. I remember hearing an American diplomat once say, "If the US is an imperial power, it's the only one that it always trying to get out of its imperial possessions". It's a good line, until you remember how many imperial powers got stuck with possessions they didn't want either, for basically the same reasons. "We should leave. But, if we do leave, the colony will become a safe haven for the sort of radicals and extremists who want us to leave; plus we would lose face in the eyes of the world, and all of our soldiers would have died in vain". In other words, it's always much clearer what "losing" would mean than what winning would look like.

Not all of the people who want continued occupation are naive about what that would mean. Ed Morrissey writes:
"If we hope to prevail, we will need a political commitment for more resources over a much longer period of time than most politicians have been willing to report. Michael Yon has insisted that means decades of Western involvement, to make sure that an Afghanistan we eventually leave will not slide back into the Afghanistan of the post-Soviet period, where radical Islam prevails and terrorist networks build central offices for attacks on the world."
I think decades is right.

As for Obama, it's fairly easy to predict that he will do just what he's done with every crisis thus far: stake out the "left wing" position- in this case leaving- and the "right wing position"- sending at least 40,000 more troops- and then do something in the middle. The drawback of this approach is that he pisses everyone off at the time. The benefit is that he probably looks more reasonable in retrospect. So, I would be surprised if he either called for pulling out completely or sending 40,000 troops. I am not getting my hopes up either way.

And, to be honest, while I'd be fine with seeing the US pull out in a big way, I'm not sure that I have any good answers to this uber-fustercluck. Could a possible solution be to pull a number of troops out now, and put more pressure on the Afghanistan security forces to step up to the plate? But then what to do about the government squandering its legitimacy? Should there be another election? Would anyone in the country take the results seriously?

The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm glad I don't have to make this decision.


Brian Dunbar said...

They need to walk the streets, so to speak.

Well, duh. That's how you win these kinds of wars.

He says they need to be more involved with protecting the individual villagers, which is hard to argue with. But how does "winning" ultimately end up looking different than colonial administration?

I bet what they have in mind is something like what the Marines did in I Corps in Vietnam, and Iraq: Combined Action Program.

Details vary depending on the year, but the Marines were there as muscle, not administrators. Go out, kill the bad guys, keep them from blowing up 'your' village. Administration of the village remains in the hands of the locals.

Stuff like this seems to work when the native forces want to take up the fight, but lack the motivation and the means.

What I think will help - a bunch - is more involvement from 'us' - not handouts but trade. The problem is getting the trading up and running so it's more fun and profitable to make soap and get rich selling it to rich Americans and Canadians than it is to sit up in the hills and take potshots at soldiers.

rufus said...

That's a good point. I look into places to buy Afghan goods or microfinance organizations and maybe post some here.

I'd also like to know about how to support the schools there. It might not be the only answer, but it couldn't hurt. I recently read about young men there who sign up to fight the coalition troops because they can't read and these guys tell them the Koran says they're supposed to.