In the Arena

Afghanistan Times

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There are dueling op-eds about Afghanistan policy in the New York Times today, by Les Gelb and by Max Boot and the Kagan Family Singers. The headlines are more extreme than the pieces: Gelb wants to withdraw from Afghanistan (but not really) and the Bootists want to “surge” there (but not very much). For the moment, I disagree with both.

But first, it’s important to note that both op-eds agree on a great many things: the need for a better coordinated economic development effort in Afghanistan, the need to build the Afghan army, the need to negotiate with and turn (and bribe) as many Taliban-oriented tribes as possible and, of course, the need to prevent Afghanistan from returning to the status quo ante 9/11, when it was a staging area for Al Qaeda.

Boot and the Kagans are more myopic. They focus on Afghanistan, only flicking at the safe havens across the border in Pakistan–that is, they virtually ignore the real problem we’re facing. Indeed, they say that if their surge strategy were implemented in Afghanistan, “There is no question that we can succeed against these much weaker foes, notwithstanding the support they receive from Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran.” That is foolish in the extreme, an utter reversal of what should be the real US priorities. Our real enemies–the Al Qaeda leadership and their extremist Taliban allies–reside in Pakistan and are attempting to destabilize that country. The Obama Administration has, rightly, shifted its focus there; Afghanistan is only important to US national interests if it once again becomes a safe haven for our terrorist enemies now residing in Pakistan. Preventing that is sufficient rationale for a continuing US presence in Afghanistan, while a major effort is made to sort out the situation in Pakistan.  Boot/Kagans, who coyly note that they’ve recently completed an 8-day tour of Afghanistan sponsored by David Petraeus, clearly want something more: they lean toward the insertion of additional American troops on top of the 17,000 en route now (which is a position favored by the Army). 

Gelb understands that the focus should really be on Pakistan, but his 3-year timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan is based on little more than whim, so far as I can tell. There is a need for a continuing US presence in Afghanistan as an adjunct to the more important effort–clearing the safe havens in Pakistan. Gelb also severely undervalues the ability of the US Army–and a few of our NATO allies–to use counterinsurgency tactics successfully. (He should check out Tom Ricks’ new book, The Gamble, about the Petraeus operation in Iraq–and so should you, if you’re interested in this issue.) The doctrine of protecting the population first is particularly efficacious in a situation, like Afghanistan, where most of the local tribespeople have little sympathy for the Taliban. (Boot/Kagan are absolutely correct about the need to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan–and in Pakistan, too, although they don’t mention that.)

Once again, let me emphasize: the Taliban are plural. Many are local tribes disaffected by the corrupt and lawless Karzai government. Some are opium militias. Some are religious extremists like Mullah Omar, and are allies of Al Qaeda. The latter group is key. Indeed, our most important military task is to reduce our enemies–by protecting the population, by bribery and, as a last resort, by the judicious use of lethal force, if necessary–to the bare minimum in the Pashtun lands that straddle Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To do that will require a combination of the counterinsurgency tactics that the Boot/Kagans favor and the regional diplomacy plus focus on Pakistan that Gelb emphasizes. The question of whether or not to send more troops–the only question that really divides these two points of view–doesn’t have to be made immediately (although additional brigades should be trained for Afghanistan duty, just in case). In fact, it is almost a peripheral consideration. The real trouble lies in Pakistan, as the civil unrest due to erupt this weekend should make very clear.