Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting Schooled on Afghanistan

I sometimes feel like a school teacher handing out homework when writing this blog. As you sit around waiting for results from Thursday's election, here are some reading suggestions. We can discuss them in tomorrow's class.
Read yesterday's Washington Post article about how General McKiernan got fired in large part because he didn't know Washington or play politics well enough (while at the same time not being offered the same power or resources as McChrystal already enjoys). Read Andrew Exum's post where he finally (almost) admits to being too close to a tactic (counterinsurgency) and unable to objectively examine the strategic realities in Afghanistan (if you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail). Read the Times op-ed talking about how ethnic divisions in Afghanistan (like almost everywhere) complicate the process of creating a government. As always, read Steve Coll's take on the strategic debate over Afghanistan, which he says will heat up even more. And if you haven't yet done so read Rory Stewart's lengthy skeptical article in the London Review of Books asking, just as I have been for some time, what our strategic objectives are and taking specific umbrage with the tautological idea of counterinsurgency as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Some of my favorite Stewart quotes:
Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’
The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.
Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building. You could create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign (India, which is far more stable and legitimate than Afghanistan, is still fighting several long counter-insurgency campaigns from Assam to Kashmir). You could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a stable state (if such a state also required the rule of law and a legitimate domestic economy).
But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.
This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? (Similarly, we do not notice the tautology in claiming to ‘overcome corruption through transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes’.)

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