In the Arena

McCain and Lieberman on Afghanistan

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America’s favorite Senatorial song and dance team are back together on the Washington Post op-ed page today, using a sledgehammer to clobber a straw man–the idea of taking a “minimalist” strategy in Iraq, whatever that means.

They seem to think “minimalism” means a return to the Iraq war strategy that didn’t work–the one prior to the Petraeus counterinsurgency and buy-the-tribes tactics, when we dashed about the country playing whack-a-mole with assorted terrorists (the military term of art for this is counterterrorism). And so, in the interest of clarity, let me allay their fears: no one is proposing that. No one. Which is why they couldn’t find a single quotation to cite. About the only people who think that “minimalism” and “counterterrorism” are in the works are professional distorters like Michael Goldfarb, formerly McCain’s designated blog-thug, now a Niagara of ignorance at the Weekly Standard.

The Obama Administration does look at Afghanistan in a rather more sophisticated way than McCain and Lieberman, as part of a regional problem where the topline effort has to be made to recivilize Pakistan–which is where our most difficult terrorist enemies are now residing. The Af/Pak plan to be announced next week will include a comprehensive menu of initiatives to aid and encourage Pakistan to take decisive action to clear out the safe havens in Waziristan and Baluchistan where Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban (and yes, there’s a difference between the two) hang out. There will be a continuing, and perhaps enhanced, US special ops and drone campaign against those havens. This area is the crux of the Af/Pak problem. McCain and Lieberman–like last week’s neocon op-ed in the New York Times from Max Boot and the Kagan Family Singers–barely mention it. This, to me, is inexplicable and perverse, a purposeful myopia that seeks to transform Afghanistan into the last war, Iraq.

As for Afghanistan itself, it looks like the Obama Administration will act on a valuable suggestion Joe Lieberman made last year–a doubling of the Afghan National Army to 250,000 troops. Plus the training of a 150,000-person national police corps. The Afghan National Army is a real success story, comprised of multi-ethnic units (unlike much of the Iraqi security force) who have proven their willingness to fight the Taliban. The problem is finding enough suitable recruits, especially for both the Army and police. As General Petraeus has noted, Afghanistan is much poorer country than Iraq, with a literacy rate of perhaps 30%, most of which is concentrated in the cities. It is impossible to be a police officer if you don’t know how to write out an arrest report.

There will also be a major effort to rationalize the economic and human development programs in Afghanistan–the UN has been a disaster there–and to keep constant diplomatic pressure on the corrupt and inept Hamid Karzai. Our excellent new Ambassdor, General Karl Eikenberry, will have this daily duty and he can’t be confirmed soon enough. (McCain and Lieberman don’t mention Karzai, whose failures–especially when it comes to rule of law and honest local government–opened the door for the Taliban to regain their footing.) This is a necessary part of counterinsurgency warfare that goes unmentioned by the military-first sorts; we won’t succeed in either Afghanistan or Pakistan if the local governments remain as they are now. You wonder why McCain and Lieberman aren’t focusing on Karzai and Zardari–rather than unnamed “minimalists”–since the services their governments have to provide, especially an honest justice system, are more crucial to victory than American force of arms. Well, actually, no, I don’t wonder about that. Here’s why:

The Obama plan, I am told, will not immediately add to the 17,000 additional U.S. troops that the President has already approved. And this is the fight that McCain, Lieberman and the neocons are itching for, the casus belli of this op-ed. Additional troops, especially trainers for the Afghan Army and national police, may be necessary in time. It will also be crucial to make sure that if Al Qaeda and the Taliban are driven out of their safe havens–eventually, as it will take years–they are not allowed to resurface in Afghanistan. This will be best accomplished if the Afghan part of the war isn’t transformed into an American occupation. Our role is to build and train the Afghan Army, and–more immediately–use counterinsurgency methods to secure the areas near to Pakistan, especially cities like Kandahar, where various Taliban factions control the countryside.

I know I’ve said all these things before. I suspect I’ll have to say them again. One of the great blessings of the past election is that John McCain’s bellicose myopia was rejected by the American people. He is right about the efficacy of counterinsurgency tactics, but his sense of proportion–his ignorance of the need for fierce diplomacy and vastly improved governance–is out of whack. His perpetual claims of patriotism, found so wanting in his intemperate behavior during the campaign, will be put to the test here again: Is he really looking for success in the Af/Pak region or just angling to put a political hurt on the President?

Update: David Ignatius talks to the estimable David Kilcullen, who offers some sanity about all this.