Sunday, October 18, 2009

Soon is the Winter of Our Afghanistan Discontent

The three main stories about South Asia in the recent news all focus on waiting: for President Obama to make a decision on a strategy and troop levels, for the official results of the Afghanistan election, and for the Pakistani Army to finally begin its offensive into South Waziristan. Waiting is not the worst thing in the world; no matter what is decided on any of those matters the fighting will likely slow to a trickle soon, since Afghanistan becomes even more inhospitable and difficult to fight in every winter.
President Obama is right to take his time discussing his South Asian strategy with as many advisers as he needs and for as long as it takes. With every passing day the critics and think tankers here inside the Beltway pace across their offices and write more and more op-eds bravely criticizing a war many of them once supported and then argued should be left alone in favor of invading Iraq, but it is worth the time needed to come up with a functional strategy. As Truman Fellow Alex Rossmiller points out, the current situation in Afghanistan is not the cliched do-or-die crossroads/critical juncture; we could sustain the current stalemate for many years to come without "losing" or "winning" any more than we currently are. General McChrystal's suspected request of 40,000 additional troops, if approved, would not arrive until around a year from now, and would still fall far, far short of the number needed for a "true" counterinsurgency campaign. Even then, as McChrystal admits, if we don't have an effective partner in the Afghan government even hundreds of thousands of troops spending another decade in Afghanistan would likely do little good.
The much-delayed results of the Afghanistan election were supposed to finally be announced this weekend, but have been delayed yet again. Enough fraudulent ballots are expected to be thrown out that Karzai will fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off. The ideal situation would be for Karzai to accept some sort of power-sharing arrangement situation, but that looks unlikely. Since he has proved to be at best a reluctant partner in actually governing his country, many U.S. leaders would prefer to work around him, but as the recognized leader of Afghanistan that is proving quite difficult. The necessity of propping up and empowering a corrupt, incompetent leader who will only inevitably collapse when we leave is not much incentive for committing more time, money, and personnel.
After over a month of buildup (both actual military buildup and media hype) this weekend the Pakistan Army finally began its offensive into South Waziristan, the home of the Mehsud clan. Since everyone knew the offensive was coming everyone has had a chance to prepare themselves to flee (an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced so far) or fight.
The looming winter will allow all parties time to sit around and think. I think the Pakistani military timed their offensive when they did in order to accomplish just enough that the Pakistani Taliban wouldn't be able to regroup and mount a major counter-offensive and to ensure that the military would not be able to overcommit. President Obama's Afghanistan strategy group will not make a decision before the results of the election are clear. The winter lull is a mixed blessing for the Administration, since no major action will be possible. The President's team should avoid getting distracted by the sniping attacks from neoconservatives all winter and focus on determining the best course of action in a region with no good options.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Big Afghanistan Strategy Rendezvous

I was at East Potomac Golf Course yesterday afternoon when a bunch of military helicopters flew by overhead. I remarked to my playing companions that it was probably Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen headed to the White House for the afternoon Afghanistan discussion. They looked at me like I was sharing top secret information rather than readily available news, but it goes to show that even in DC, where "everyone" is enthralled with the ongoing Afghanistan strategy debate, "everyone" is really just a few of the wonkiest of us.
To recap, so far General McChrystal is arguing for an intensive population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, including an increase of probably 40,000 U.S. troops. Vice President Joe Biden continues to advocate for a troop draw down and a focus on counter terrorism and targeting al Qaeda leadership. President Obama has gathered the usual suspects for regular discussions in hopes of coming up with a coherent strategy. While I have been calling for a defined and articulated end goal and strategy since at least several things we introduced as strategies ago, I applaud the effort now as better late than never, assuming in the end we come up with an actual strategy. So what if it took the farce of an Afghan election to cast doubt on the idea of the Afghanistan government taking over smoothly in a few years and keeping Afghanistan stable, at least we're now discussing it.
Last week Fred Kaplan brought up two key questions the strategy team should answer:
First, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai likely to rally the support of his own people, especially given the massive fraud in the recent election? (If he doesn't rally this support, counterinsurgency is doomed to fail; this, the top U.S. military leaders acknowledge.)
Second, given the vast amount of blood, treasure, and time that a COIN campaign requires under the best of circumstances, are the prospective benefits worth the cost?
And today Marc Lynch countered with five questions of his own. I think all of those questions are important, and I hope they are being discussed in the room, but my big concern is what the end goal is for Afghanistan. The major difference I see between us and the British and Soviets - and hopefully the reason we can succeed where they failed - is that we do not want to occupy Afghanistan any longer than necessary. The goal is for us to withdraw from an Afghanistan that no longer harbors a threat to the world, and I hope the team takes that long term a view of the problem.
It only added to the turmoil when General McChrystal mentioned that he had only ever talked to President Obama once since taking over, and has advocated for his counterinsurgency campaign (which he falsely calls a strategy) in recent talks and media interviews he has done. This has led to debates about whether the field commander should be playing politics and pushing his agenda through the media rather than going through the chain of command. Some have interpreted this as pulling a MacArthur, others have defended him. Obama has yet to pull a Truman in '51 - though he would be justified since McChrystal to me is undermining his Commander in Chief and clearly has said his piece - but was smacked down by Secretary Gates. McChrystal was put in place over General McKiernan because he could supposedly think in bigger and more flexible ways, but so far only seems to follow the COIN orthodoxy.
I'm glad the Afghanistan strategy debate is happening, both behind closed doors and out in the public. It's about bloody time, and by that I mean it's about eight years too late. But McChrystal needs to contribute through the chain of command, the way he has his entire career. I know he's an unconventional warrior, but he can't ambush the President. The principals need to go into the room and spend as much time as necessary, but when they come out they need to speak with one voice, believe it, and execute it. If McChrystal can't get on board if the decision doesn't go his way he will need to be sent home.

Twisted Logic on Pakistan's Nukes

Someone help me understand this: the biggest danger in South/Central Asia is al Qaeda getting its hands on one or more of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda's leadership and many of their fighters are currently in Pakistan. Therefore the argument is we should send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan? I'm not sure I follow the logic chain. Assuming we failed and largely pulled out of Afghanistan, and assuming the Taliban (whose leaders are also primarily in Pakistan) re-take control of much of Afghanistan, and assuming the Taliban welcome al Qaeda back and provide them the oft-mentioned "safe haven" (and none of those assumptions are sure things by the way), they would then be MORE likely to attack Pakistan's nuclear facilities?
When the Taliban famously advanced into the Swat valley, within 90 miles of the capital Islamabad, I argued against the doom sayers, saying Pakistan was not about to collapse. Now the Pakistani military has largely driven the Taliban from Swat and is preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, home to much of the Taliban leadership. Drone strikes have successfully taken out many leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud (leading to this lovely ditty). Pakistan was not about to collapse then, and is not about to collapse or give up its nuclear weapons now. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are safe, and should not be used as a bureaucratic pawn in the strategic debate. I'm all for a vigorous debate on goals and strategies, but let's apply a few sober standards of logic to this strategic conversation.