Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Afghanistan: Can "a disastrous situation" be salvaged?

I've just finished watching the excellent Frontline (PBS) program "The War Briefing" about the situation in Afghanistan. (That is, I was watching when I wasn't twisting the antenna and cursing the picture on my non-cable TV.)

The quotation in the title of this post is from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who declared in an interview in the program that Afghanistan is "a disastrous situation for the U.S." It's hard to disagree with him on the basis of the evidence summarized by Frontline. Here are some of the essentials: 1) a weak central government widely perceived as corrupt, opposed by 2) a resurgent insurgency taking advantage of sanctuaries in Pakistan and benefiting from support by the growing Pakistani Taliban movement, with 3) a grossly insufficient number of U.S. troops on the ground (33,000) given the size of the territory (larger than Iraq), leading to 4) an over-reliance on airstrikes that have produced significant civilian casualties (civilian deaths generally have doubled in the past two years), which in turn 5) increases support for the insurgents. There's a lot more going on, but that boils it down to a few of the basics.

You don't need to be a strategic studies or counterinsurgency expert to realize that the current U.S./NATO policy is failing and that one or two more brigades, as Scheuer said, are unlikely to solve the problem. Nor, probably, will getting rid of the so-called 70 caveats -- the current restrictions on rules of engagement (see earlier post and comments). Nor will more monetary support from non-fighting NATO countries, though I'm sure it would be welcome.

Someone should be, and perhaps is, asking: What will be the security consequences for the U.S. of a re-takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban? Maybe the consequences will not be as dire as some suppose. In that case maybe the best course is to try to negotiate with the Taliban, with a view perhaps to either some power-sharing arrangement with Karzai or even a de jure division of the country into separate spheres of control. That might allow the U.S. and NATO to cut their losses in Afghanistan and focus more attention on the situation in Pakistan which, as Colin Kahl says in the program, is potentially a much more serious situation for the U.S., given the recent increase in strength of the Pakistani Taliban and the fragility of the current Pakistan government. That this is not a totally crazy thought is indicated by very recent reports that the U.S. is considering the possibility of negotiating with at least elements of the Taliban. Moreover, as David Ignatius discussed in a recent Wash Post column, Saudi Arabia has begun to host a mediation effort involving the Karzai government and the main Afghan insurgent groups. Obviously it's too early to say whether anything will come of these developments.

In the meantime, it seems unfair to the 33,000 U.S. troops, and British, Dutch, Canadian, and other NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, to continue under-resourcing their operations. Of the roughly 15,000 additional U.S. troops slated for (or requested by generals for) Afghanistan, only 4,500 are currently available, according to the Frontline program. This at a time when 28,500 U.S. troops are sitting in South Korea, and thousands more are in Japan and Germany. It creates at the very least a perception of skewed priorities. I'm sure someone at the Pentagon might have a reasonable-sounding explanation for this, but few members of the public have heard it because no reporters, as far as I'm aware, have bothered to ask the question. And as I've indicated before, I do not think "reasonable-sounding" means a simple appeal to our alliance with South Korea. There is no reason the alliance cannot survive a reduced U.S. troop presence there.

Update: The exchange in the comments has got me re-thinking this last paragraph.


El Jefe Maximo said...

I keep meaning to come back to this subject, but count me as a skeptic on Afghanistan...specifically the efficacy of more troops. Absent effective control of or help by Pakistan, I do not think additional troops in Afghanistan can be adequately supplied for any lengthy period, and even if we solved the supply issue, I don't think they're enough troops in the US military to do the job, in some of the most forbidding cultural and terrain conditions on earth.

Finally, I question the value of the whole operation -- I tend to think that there is not anything in all Afghanistan worth a single casualty.

We seem to have missed Bin Laden. I think we lost our best chance to bag him at Tora Bora a few years back -- trying to corner him in a huge expanse of rough terrain with a brigade and a half, some special forces plus tribal mercenaries was unlikely to work anyway. Hopefully we get another chance, but I don't think a prolonged presence in Afghanistan is going to net us anything but long casualty lists and control over the ground we happen to occupy at the time.

I think this is a lost cause. . .much more so than Iraq has ever been.

LFC said...

So I assume your policy prescription is an announcement by the next administration -- Obama or McCain -- that after careful reconsideration it has been determined, in consultation w NATO allies, to terminate the mission w all deliberate speed b/c any military solution has been deemed unlikely to be found? and then just abandon Karzai to his fate? your comment makes pts you have made before, and again i say you *may* be right, but what about the negotiation route that is now looking more plausible? ... you don't say anything specifically about that (though i do mention it in the post).

El Jefe Maximo said...

I would NEVER favor some outright announcement as you describe . . .but one way or another, I think we're leaving. We can dress it up how we want and shift the water around in the leaky bottles but that's going to be the facts sooner rather than later.

We're in too deep to get out immediately. But we need to be thinking more on how to do it, and not about reinforcing a policy that isn't working. Negotiating with the Taliban on the lines you mention will have to be done...we need to at least see if (1) there is some part of the Taliban we can deal with, and (2) to explore the possibility that there might be some kind of daylight between the Taliban and their Al Qaeda friends.

I hope the Saudi mediation effort goes someplace, although surely the Saudis have their own agenda, which probably isn't much the Karzai government would find agreeable.

As an aside, as reprehensible and as incomprehensible as I find the Taliban, I have always wondered whether the Bush people made enough of an effort back in 2001 to treat them separately from Al Qaeda. I'm away from my books and notes -- seems like they tried a little, but Mullah Omar wouldn't budge.

I don't like the idea of just abandoning the Karzai government, but they're likely to be leaving in our baggage train, if they can't do at least somewhat better at raising troops and building a loyal bureaucracy. I'm not seeing much sign of that, which, after 7 years, is saying a lot.

As you wrote in the post, the military problems are a vicious circle of problems -- it's hard to expect the Karzai government to do better given the overall government/NATO military weakness and the ability of the enemy to hide in sanctuaries and to wait us out. I'm not convinced this problem can be addressed adequately by simply applying more troops, even if they could be supplied.

Somehow we need to get a grip on the Pakistani side of the problem, but it's hazardous to fiddle with your windpipe when you need it to breathe.

I wish Karzai and his government well, but at some point most of the players there are going to wind up back in exile or dead.

LFC said...

OK, a large part of this last comment makes sense to me, perhaps i shd reconsider whether even short-term reinforcements would matter or are a good idea. I'll have to think about this.