The New Republic’s Afghanistan Issue

Karzai in hat

The New Republic dedicated an issue to “what’s next” for the Afghanistan War. This is a summary of the each of the nine essays included, followed by some light ranting.

“Losing Faith” by Leon Wieseltier

America has every right to be in Afghanistan for its national interest: “I remember September 11.” We also have a strong argument to be there for humanitarian reasons because of the “medieval” Taliban. But Wieseltier dismisses counterinsurgency strategy (COIN, according to general David Petraeus’ manual) as irredeemably misplaced in Afghanistan. COIN’s major tenet requires a legitimate host government, which the interventionist forces seek to prop up. Afghanistan is not only provincial, but in many areas tribal, and the potential central power is seen as corrupt. What’s worse, there seems to be no native will to battle the insurgents: “…The Taliban must be fought. But it must be fought by the people whom it aspires to oppress—and those people seem to want us to fight it for them. They complain, rightly, about Bush’s indifference and Obama’s impatience, but they have not yet risen up….” Even when noting a Henry Kissinger theory about COIN operating within, not above, the separate regional interests, the author doesn’t see it faring much better. His assumed prescription? Something that doesn’t include the devoted cooperation of the splintered, self-interested population.


“Keeping Promises” by Peter Bergen

Taking his thesis from an ABC/BBC poll indicating that the Afghans’ biggest concerns are unemployment and poverty and their biggest fear is the Taliban, Bergen says the population wants us there (62 percent!) and we have a responsibility to the Afghan people. Infrastructure reconstruction, woefully lacking since the early resistance of the Bush Administration to nation-building, is a necessity strategically. Some major projects to undertake to increase economic activity: secure the Kabul to Kandahar highway, finish the Kajaki Dam and implement an FDR-style Works Progress Administration. Bergen then refutes the draw-down argument that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are mainly in Pakistan by citing the Pakistan Army’s intensive fighting in South Waziristan: “Let the Pakistani’s continue at their own speed and desist from publicly scolding them” as they have lost more soldiers than all the NATO nations combined. To throw Pakistan a security bone vis a vis India, have the U.N. declare Afghanistan neutral. In any case, we must “fulfill the promise we made to Afghan citizens to put their country on the path to a better future.”

“Get Out Yesterday” by David Rieff

The goals for the war set in June by the Obama administration—to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and create a stable government in Afghanistan, while persuading Pakistan to assist in the destroying, all by 2011 — are not remotely realistic, even without a draw-down date. Rieff uses variations of the terms unachievable and goals at least three times and gives his priorities: “I’d feel far safer if we were doing less fighting in Helmand and unleashing even more drone strikes in Pakistan, and more spying on mosques in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.” Acknowledging that we could “hold the cities” as the only definition of long-term success conceivable (and that we are not leaving any time soon), Rieff maintains that it’s simply not worth the blood and treasure. Espousing a general philosophy against “expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based interventions,” the only hope now is that we will move closer to isolationism, learning lessons from this quagmire.

“Stay Forever” by Josef Joffe

Canada, Poland, Australia, Germany and Britain are anxious to depart. NATO nations have grown frustrated with Afghan civilian casualties, not to mention their own loss of money and soldiers—a collective moral conscience weighs them down. This is, after all, a war of choice. Joffe notes that COIN constitutes the “willingness to stay as long as it takes” but seems to endorse the counterterrorism model without ever mentioning it: While nation-building is costly and futile (“there is no nation in Afghanistan”) and an all-out exit is not the path to victory, “a combination of watchful presence and nimble offensive can be sustained indefinitely.” He emphasizes a police-on-the-beat analogy and using our technological advantages (as well as local intel) to keep our enemy’s costs high and sap their energy and resources. Joffe points to the draw-down date and Karzai/Taliban negotiations as a neon sign that the muslim extremists cannot be defeated, but must be contained. If we can outwit and be perceived to outlast, we gain long-run bargaining power. In his reasons for staying, Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorist attacks are conspicuously absent. Instead, foresight into the 21st century Middle East as a continual battleground for ideologies as well as resources (“Europe in the 20th century”) obligates us to the region—where the Taliban is small potatoes compared to Pakistan and Iran.

“Unshackle the Troops” by Amitai Etzioni

The rules of engagement under COIN—which seek to minimize Afghan casualties by, say, having U.S. soldiers announce they’re going to attack so bystanders can vacate the area—increase the likelihood of coalition casualties. Etzioni offers a couple hypothetical scenarios that illustrate the problem in action. Even before these newer constrictions, the Taliban et al exploited our willingness to heed Geneva war guidelines, using their countrymen as human shields in every way possible. And ironically, it is our play-by-the-rules generals who constantly apologize for the civilian deaths caused by the insurgents as an integral part of their strategy. Much more innocent blood is on the insurgents’ hands. Etzioni makes sure that we know he thinks killing Afghan noncombatants is “deeply regrettable.” In fact, better to go with the Biden counterterrorism model of drones and Special Forces in order to negotiate with the enemy: “Instead of asking our troops to fight this war under rules that increase our losses in the vain hope of gaining popularity, we should offer to withdraw our forces as long as the Taliban agree to stop harboring terrorists who threaten us or our allies.”

“Rescue the North” by Anna Badkhen

Badkhen took a trip through North Afghanistan—largely neglected as virtually anti-Taliban—where a lack of promised aid has allowed the fundamentalists to regain strength, and the poppy industry to flourish. Everywhere she went, she heard the same thing: The best way to win back the region is not with added security forces, set to be arriving this summer, but with schools, clinics, electrical grids, communal wells and paved roads. Millions in the North are improverished and jobs and infrastructure would go a long way toward gaining popularity for the counterinsurgency effort, according to area governors. Right now, the Taliban are filling the void with basic necessities and even foreign Al Qaeda operatives are finding refuge. While Badkhen notes that delivering the aid is a dangerous undertaking, it should be seen as preferable to simply “handing over half the country to the Taliban.”

“Awaken the Pashtuns” by Fouad Ajami

Though Ajami never explains the significance of Pashtun or their relationship to our enemies, one can gather from this mistitled piece that he believes General Petraeus and the prosecutors of the war would do well to foment a Pashtun Awakening (in the manner of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq). The Afghans who share the religious and cultural beliefs of the Taliban should be heavily persuaded to break with them. Ajami hints that Petraeus can use the Iraq War template to salvage some sense of progress by attempting to line up strategic partnerships before we begin our exit. But, for almost two-thirds of the article, the focus lingers on the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the inherited war and the Democrats’ ambivalence, if not hostility, toward it. Quoting the president’s speeches, Ajami invokes the two wars in the eyes of Obama’s 2008 campaign—Iraq, the bad “choice,” Afghanistan, a “necessary” operation—before pointing to what could potentially be seen as Obama’s LBJ Vietnam nightmare.

“Save Whatever We Can” by Ahmed Rashid

The situation in Afghanistan is bleak. We need to cut our losses. Strangely, as if there weren’t a draw-down date set for roughly eight months from now, Rashid calls for Obama to make a “change in strategy—one that takes into account that fact that NATO forces will not be able to stay…much longer.” The first step is mediation with the Taliban, in which the U.S. takes the lead backed up by Karzai—not the other way around. Rashid’s piece is based on accomplishing “comparatively easy objectives” by which he means fight where defeating the insurgents is plausible in a short time. We must clear and hold the roads connecting Afghanistan’s major cities. Next, secure Kabul and the areas where the insurgents have little footing. Finally, “clearing the eastern and northern provinces…which are more pro-government than the Taliban-dominated south.” To emphasize the word comparatively in these goals is key. Once we’ve made headway on the more realistic actions, we bring our enemies to the bargaining table and allow them the Helmand and Kandahar chips.

“Stop Blaming the Afghans” by Steve Coll

Instead of promoting a unity of political forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO have “mostly exacerbated the country’s fragmentation.” A united effort is most important in holding together a diverse Afghan National Army that has any chance of effectively containing the Taliban. Obama’s premature withdrawal date announcement, of course, has undercut all unity goals, and our dedication to an insecure Hamad Karzai has not particularly endeared us to other significant regional groups. That aside, the formation of a broad national commission from all religions, regions, tribes and the military, not solely run from the presidential palace, would be symbolically impressive—without necessarily having to be particularly functional (at first). Afghans “repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology” and “produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the 20th century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion.” To dismiss them as corrupt, drug-addled, and lacking will is to shirk the responsibility to finish what we started in the fall of 2001.

Commentary by Michael Quiñones
The basic question: Is this a humanitarian mission in which we are beholden to improve the lives of the Afghans by seeing through a capable, secular government and army? If not, we can withdraw a large chunk of troops and cover most of our national security concerns with the counterterrorism model: drones, Special Forces and a broader war on all Al Qaeda harborers. (In all likelihood, this will be the strategy to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table when we draw down in 2011.) However, if it is our mission to improve lives or spread democracy, then both Presidents Bush and Obama have irredeemably failed, and Obama far worse. Obama could have learned from the futile “light footprint” method in Iraq. He had two choices in Afghanistan: contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda with counterterrorism (the Biden method) or wipe them out and keep them out with COIN, sending at least 100,000 troops to both “clear, hold and build” and provide security for massive aid and reconstruction to win hearts and minds — and institute a ten-year plan. To split the difference was both a bad political move and unfeasible militarily. Iraq taught us that you can’t half-ass COIN, especially without a credible government to take the reins. And the most obvious and egregious disregard for true COIN, the arbitrary draw-down date, sealed the deal. That we didn’t just try and fail but clearly set ourselves up to fail will be the hardest thing (politically and historically) Obama will face from this ordeal. As described above, there are ways to salvage the situation, if not to help the Afghan people then at least to keep our country safer from attack by monitoring the greater region with the structures we have put in place. We will be in Afghanistan in some capacity for at least another decade, hopefully trying to improve relations with all those who feel we betrayed them. But there is no way to salvage the perception of Obama’s war—a political balancing act (likely the result of having many advisors clamoring from all sides) that will prove an epic backfire. His decision is destined to tarnish him and liberal presidents for generations to come in the annals of war.

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