In the Arena

Non Sequitur

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Tony Cordesman, the well-known and -regarded military expert, makes the case for more of everything in Afghanistan today. But there is a giant hole in the middle of his argument. Cordesman says that it’s up to the U.S. troops–and he supports adding as many as 40,000 more, nearly doubling the size of the force–to bring good governance to Afghanistan:

U.S. forces need to “hold” and keep the Afghan population secure, and “build” enough secure local governance and economic activity to give Afghans reason to trust their government and allied forces. They must build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them. No outcome of the recent presidential election can make up for the critical flaws in a grossly overcentralized government that is corrupt, is often a tool of power brokers and narco-traffickers, and lacks basic capacity in virtually every ministry.

That, unfortunately, is entirely unrealistic. Counter-insurgency tactics can help create the conditions for better local governance, but it’s up to the Afghan government to build those institutions, not us. This is a country with a tradition of rejecting outsiders; foreign involvement becomes counter-productive at some, indeterminate–but very real–level. An increase of U.S. troops on the order that Cordesmann–and, perhaps, McChrystal–envision could provoke a backlash. Certainly, it is unrealistic to think that we can create good governance in the provinces without the support of the central government. (Someone should also tell Cordesman that the excellent Ambassador Eikenberry–and perhaps even General McChrystal–would not be on the ground in Kabul if it hadn’t been for the “micromanagement” of special envoy Richard Holbrooke.)

The fact is, some hard decisions are coming on Afghanistan. The Karzai government may make it impossible for the U.S. and the international community to succeed in nation-building and economic development. Most experts agree with Cordesman that the most important job is to build a bigger Afghan Army that continues to reflect the inter-ethnic diversity and strength the Afghan military has already shown. But it may be difficult to achieve much more than that–and unwise to augment our current force levels to a point where they become an impediment to success. It is vital to our national security that Al Qaeda be prevented from re-establishing safe havens in Afghanistan (it’s also vital that AQ’s safe havens in Pakistan be eliminated.) But, as I wrote last week, I hope someone in the military is thinking about Plan B.