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.

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