Afghanistan

Anthony Cordesman recently published a commentary on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. Comments on the commentary were then made by Abu Muqawama, Max Boot, and Michael Cohen. Let me add my own two cents.

First, he questions the strategic reasons for the war:  “The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world….” Then, he gives us one: “The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability.” OK, two, actually, three. All are likely to be wrong.

Let’s look at AQ and international terrorism. These can be seen as two different concepts. AQ is a coordinator, an inspirer, a financier — one might even say venture capitalist. It doesn’t need Afghanistan as a sanctuary. It has places all over the world it can go to. What it needs is a secure communications system, and access to large amounts of funding that it can funnel to the people it inspires. Most of that requires the services of a modern economy (although the Moslem informal banking system is apparently a help). It doesn’t particularly need training camps, if what it is doing is indoctrinating a few people and showing them how to take over airplanes. The best agency to defend against AQ right now is probably the Treasury Department, followed by the FBI, and FBI liason officers at the US embassies.

The groups clumped under the title international terrorism appear to be mostly involved in training foot soldiers and NCOs and exporting their skills to insurgencies in other Moslem countries. They require camps where people can run around, shooting AK-47s, but they are not a major threat to the US, except where we are on their soil. Most of the output of these camps appears to be going to AF and PK, not to NY.

The stability of PK wasn’t an issue until we started pressuring them to push forces into the tribal areas of the NW frontier. If the PK government were to stop, to go back to ruling this region through benign neglect, the single most potent reason for a destabilizing insurgency would disappear.

We solve the international terrorist problem, and possibly much of the AQ problem as well, by removing the source of their recruiting appeal. We leave AF to the Afghans. We reduce pressure on the PK government to stir up the tribes on the NW Frontier. We continue our pullout from Iraq. We change our Middle East policy to be overtly more even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians, instead of being knee-jerk supporters of whatever policy the hopelessly fragmented Israeli government comes up with this week.

The second thing that Cordesman questions is whether or  not the war in AF is “winnable.” He thinks it is, but not with the original goals. He thinks we can achieve a “good enough” solution to make it seem like we have won. This is a far cry from what we wanted. It’s still probably unachievable. One commentator was quoted as saying that you had to spend a year on the ground in AF to be qualified to make any kind of statement about the country. I haven’t done that. Neither have our policy makers nor most of those who advise them. Even the reduced goals that Cordesman has espoused seem to have little to do with the overt strategic reasons he gave above. Here’s a not-very-insightful list of what I think the spectrum of post-US AF possibilities looks like.

1. A return to the Taliban

2. A stable government, with insurgent participation,  probably not pro-US, but not necessarily anti-. By stable government I mean that they have, you know, a flag and a head of state, and some way of guaranteeing the safety of embassies. I don’t necessarily mean that the government’s writ runs beyond rifle shot of a paved road.

3. A pro-US government, capable of defeating the insurgents over the long haul

4. A western-style democracy

The last is not achievable in our lifetimes. The third one will require a decade of US military presence and casualties, with all the domestic angst and international terrorist recruiting fodder and PK instability that implies. The first two are the most likely results of the US ending its presence in AF in a timely fashion.  I have no idea which is more likely. My position is that any of these, once achieved, solves most of the problems and answers most of our current reasons for being in AF. The question is, which can be arrived at with the least expenditure of lives and treasure. I’d say that getting us out faster is better.

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