In the Arena

Will on Afghanistan

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George Will has now proposed his own Plan B for Afghanistan:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

It may well come to that, or a more robust variation of that, but I think Will’s prescription is premature. We have to see what, if anything, emerges from the Afghan election. We have to see what, if any, impact the augmented U.S. troops–who are still arriving–have on the fight. We have to see what, if any, impact the augmented non-military component–the increased aid, the additional aid workers and economic development specialists–have on Afghanistan. You might ask: why wait if the thing is a disaster, as Will proposes? A legitimate question.

There are two answers: One is that the U.S. has a real national security interest in Afghanistan. We don’t want to see it revert to its former status–run by Taliban extremists who provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda (who may be looking for new digs if the Pakistanis amp up the pressure in the Northwest Frontier areas, as promised). This is a significant difference from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, neither of which had significant national security implications (indeed, both wars diminished our security by draining our military and obliterating our standing in the world). The other answer is that we have a moral obligation to the Afghan people, just as we had to the Iraqis when we stomped in there and destroyed the most basic institutions of civil society (corrupt and authoritarian institutions to be sure, but they provided a semblance of order which we replaced with a semblance of anarchy).

Having been to Afghanistan twice in the past year, with another trip looming, I have a strong sense that the Afghans would be quite amenable to an international presence that helps restore order and helps to establish the rudiments of civil society–schools, security, sanitation and so forth–and then leaves. It is something we owe them, if we can achieve it…and that is a big if. It is a fundamental principle of counter-insurgency  (COIN) doctrine that you can’t succeed without a reliable local partner. COIN succeeded in quieting down Iraq–relatively, and for the moment–because the Iraqi government, a mess when General Petraeus arrived, became more stable over time as Nuri al-Maliki established himself as a strong leader. We have a similar mess now with Hamid Karzai.

If the fraud proves so extensive that the recent election is considered a joke–or if Karzai fails to reconstitute his government in a way that promises better governance, less corruption and a more aggressive effort to reconcile with those Taliban who are not attached to Al Qaeda (the vast majority of them, apparently), then we’ve got a major problem on our hands. And a major decision to make. 

The military’s reflexive instinct is to keep trying until the mission is completed. That’s what we pay them to do. We pay Presidents to make decisions about whether the mission is possible, advisable, needs to be scaled back or abandoned.  I hope President Obama has ordered the military to come up with a set of alternative options if the post-election Karzai government turns out to be as useless as the pre-election Karzai government. He has painted himself into a corner on this one, calling Afghanistan a “war of necessity” before the VFW last month. The war against the Al Qaeda leadership is necessary; I’m not sure that the best way to fight that war is to try to prop up a hopelessly corrupt government in Afghanistan. As I said, I’m not ready to concede that George Will is right–but the President has to consider the possibility that Will is…and make a decision about how to proceed in the next few months.