Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Evolving Thinking on Afghanistan

I have not written much about the war in Afghanistan before, because I was unsure what I thought about it. When candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 that Afghanistan was the right war and Iraq was the wrong one, I tended to agree with him. At least when we invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 we had some reasons for doing so that were not blatantly false. Unlike in Iraq, Al Qaeda really was operating in Afghanistan. And unlike Saddam Hussein's regime, the Taliban really was implicated in the September 11th attacks.

I try to avoid being just reflexively anti-war, though I have some respect for people who are. To sort of invert the way Jimmy Carter put it, I believe that war is always evil, but it may sometimes be a necessary evil. So, as uncomfortable as I have been with the long occupation of Afghanistan, I have never decided what, if anything, we should do instead.

But now, eight years into the occupation and awaiting President Obama's speech tonight, I find myself leaning toward a new position on the issue. I think it's time to stop our continuous escalation of troop levels and begin bringing most of our troops home. I think there is probably reason to leave a small number of troops deployed to assist with only the most essential security details in Kabul and Kandahar and for training Afghan security forces. I think we should maintain our ability for special forces to pursue high value al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But we should not be patrolling cities and villages and occupying remote mountain outposts. We should not have a large-scale presence on the ground in Afghanistan.

Let me briefly explain my reasoning. In my understanding, when we attacked Afghanistan, we had several goals:
1. To overthrow the Taliban,
2. To strike a major blow against Al Qaeda,
3. To kill or capture Osama bin Laden,
4. To replace the Taliban with a less extremist Afghan government.
Goal #1 has been accomplished. The Taliban has been ousted and will not return to power. We should not equate all of the insurgents we are currently fighting with the Taliban. Afghans have always fought foreign invaders. We should not think that everyone who is shooting at Americans is the Taliban or supports the Taliban.

Goal #2 has been accomplished. Our fighting has largely changed Al Qaeda from a network into a movement. The US military is great at dismantling networks, but defeating a movement takes soft power. The enemy has changed, so it's time for our strategy to change too.

Goal #3 of course has not been accomplished. But a large-scale occupation of Afghanistan is not going to help this anyway. Especially when recent reporting suggests bin Laden is in Pakistan. Fusion of local intelligence and special forces operations is our best chance here. I believe we will catch bin Laden when a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman turns him in.

Goal #4 has always been the most complex. It may be impossible--if it's even warranted--to install a central government that has control over all of Afghanistan. And to set this as the bar we have to meet is to keep us there forever. The term "valleyism" has been used by some to describe how many rural Afghans think. Put simply, they'll fight anyone who comes into their valley, whether they are Persians, British, Russians, Americans, or even Afghans from the central government in Kabul. They don't call it the "Graveyard of Empires" for nothing.

I also think that the war in Afghanistan--which might be making us safer--is sapping resources from things here at home that definitely would make us safer. In my next post I'll discuss this in more detail.

For now, I'm getting ready to watch President Obama's speech tonight. He's expected to announce the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and a plan to begin drawing down troop levels in three years. I think this is probably the wrong course, but I'm willing to hear him out. He is a smarter man than I am, he has put a lot more time into thinking about it than I have, and he has information that I don't have. (All of which could also be true of a tyrant of course.) But most importantly, I still trust Obama's instincts on the big things.

So, Mr. President, I think you are probably wrong on this, but I'm listening.


Elizabeth said...

What if instead of increasing our military presence, we increased our health, education and social presence? I believe the way to change the "hearts and minds" of Afghans is by helping them receive a quality education, encouraging microfinance institutions (which are already quite successful in areas of the country) and other such programs.

Why do we always assume that the "defeat" of the Taliban has to be through military might? In fact, as one of my favorite NYTimes columnists said a few weeks ago, we seem to accomplish more towards real, sustainable change when we provide aid, not war. If President Obama doesn't dwell on this aspect of making Afghanistan a safer, more stable, healthy place, I'm sad to say that I think little will change long-term.

Camp Papa said...

Okay, I've listened to the speech. However much I wish it were not so, we are in a helluva mess over there, due, in no small part to the incompetence of the Bush administration. That said, I trust this President's instincts. Maybe, just maybe, in order to make an orderly withdrawal, we have to make one last larger effort to do the right thing to restore some chance of a functioning nation-state.

Becky said...

I just watched it. My overall response was "maybe." I'm not really convinced. I think this was the right fight in 2001, but I'm not sure it's the right fight now.

I just think, when have we shown that we're very good at "increasing the capacity" of a local population in the way he kept describing? And if it is worth doing, why this partial approach? It feels a little like tinkering. I don't know.

Also, the speech seemed oddly hedged to me. He bent over backwards to keep from making big promises. It contributed to my feeling that he's not sure this is the best idea, but doesn't know what else to do.

Veronica said...

Thanks for your ideas, Dave--I've been following your blog for a while, and I always appreciate your insights.

I'm trying to figure out what to think on this issue--I'm kind of with Becky on the "maybe." I want to trust Obama, and I voted for him in part because I think he's way smarter than me. I also know that he has access to more information than I do on this--and yet, I keep thinking that first of all, as you say, war is evil, and that second of all, history tells us that wars in Afghanistan are never "winnable."

I really agree with Elizabeth's comment--from what I understand, the Afghan government is currently spending only a fraction of the money it has--a fraction of its budgets for education, agriculture, water and energy, public health, etc.--while the rest of the money that is there to be spent is lost to corruption and inaction. What if American presence was more like the Peace Corps, helping the government and the people establish programs, schools, and public works? What if we started with literacy, health, and safe water, rather than focusing on weapons and patrols? Might that kind of presence actually make us safer in the long run than a military presence?

delaine said...

Okay, I heard President Obama say this war is not Viet Nam. But it seems just as hopeless and painful. We lost almost 60,000 Americans in that war and for what ? I'm sure Obama knows more than he is telling, but I can't help but question the wisdom of all this. Bin Laden is not even in Afghanistan, and our efforts in Pakistan are limited. Meanwhile here at home we are in dire straits in too many areas. I have supported Obama and still do. I just want us to be out of that sand pit and taking care of Americans! How long will it take for the Taliban to creep back in? And then what will all the sacrifice have been for ? Tragic.

Chris said...

Barack is changing the anti-war stance he had in the campaign. I think he is pandering to the Republican party in exchange for some leniency and respect for his domestic legislation. John McCain is all over TV supporting this decision. Politics at the expense of human life.

Dave said...

Good comments all around.

Hi Veronica! I'm glad you're reading.

Here are some of my initial reactions to the speech.

--I thought it was interesting that he devoted a section of the speech to explaining why Afghanistan is not Vietnam. He made good points: In Afghanistan 1)We have more support from the world, 2) The enemy is not widely popular with the Afghan people, and 3) We were first provoked by an attack. But I think he left out an important similarity: In both cases, many of the people shooting at us were/are motivated not so much by International Communism or Terrorism as by nationalism and anti-imperialism.

--I noticed he argued that the course he's chosen will be the cheapest one in the long run. I hope that was more than just a throw-away line.

--I did not hear him talk about the long ethnic conflict in Afghanistan. No mention of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, or rural vs. urban populations. He pretty much cast the story as, "The Taliban is gaining momentum and must be stopped." That's not false; it's just incomplete.

--I think it is sort of dangerous to say--as I did in my post--that the president must know something we don't and then to let that cover for his lacking case for war. For one, we've obviously been burned that way before. And second, if he had some big secret, he would probably tell us. That's what the Bushies did trying to justify the invasion of Iraq. They declassified lots of secrets (which turned out to be wrong by the way).

--BUT. If I'm wrong and Obama does have some big unspoken rationale, I think it has to do with the stability of the Pakistani government and its nuclear arsenal. He did talk about Pakistan but only about Pakistan being an important partner in the fight. I didn't hear him talk about instability in Afghanistan affecting the stability of Pakistan. Or maybe I just missed it?

Becky said...

I think he just acknowledged that the problem wasn't confined to national borders and had "spilled over" into Pakistan. But he meant geographically, not politically.

Dave, say more about how/why the situation in Afghanistan could be destabilizing Pakistan in some way we don't know about, and how that might make this action more urgent.

Veronica said...

I want to hear your thoughts on Pakistan too--

On the ethnic conflicts, I agree--also, Juan Cole has an interesting piece published yesterday on Salon that talks about the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has an interesting point of view about the importance of the ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan, and how different the divides are in Afghanistan vs. Iraq.

On Vietnam, I think you're absolutely right on your point about nationalism and anti-imperialism. Further, I think an important thing Obama didn't acknowledge is that another link between Afghanistan and Vietnam is the fact that it was once our foreign policy to try to lure the USSR into Afghanistan, because the ethnic conflicts and mountain/valley terrain and warfare styles would inevitably create a war that would be "their Vietnam." And I think that those very same ethnic conflicts and valley warfare styles are huge obstacles to our potential "success" today.

Mason said...

It seems to me that we are damned if we do (pull out) and damned if we don't. Although I don't think we can "win" militarily, we CAN hold off the Taliban from gaining power for a little while longer. If I had to guess, the troop levels will continue for many years because no president wants to be the one who lets the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan. At some point we will have to pull out and the Taliban or whatever group like it will move in and take power. This is a long term religious mission for these people, and if you kill the leader, up pops a new leader. The two long terms solutions are to 1. get them to stop being radical muslims who want to rule the country with sharia law or 2. make the rest of the Afghan people so economically well off and educated that they can resist the advances of the minority radicals. Neither of these things will happen in our lifetimes.

Dave said...

Well, the nightmare scenario we've heard about Pakistan involves the government being overthrown by religious hardliners who would be sympathetic with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And of course Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And Al Qaeda would love to gets its hands on a nuke (or nuclear material) and would have no incentive not to use it. So the nightmare in all this ends in nuclear terrorism.

But even if it didn't actually come to Pakistan's nuclear stockpiles being captured by jihadists, a lesser nightmare would involve the American military going into Pakistan in force to prevent it.

So, does Obama have secret knowledge about this? Probably. He's made Pakistan a big priority in his foreign policy, and if our intelligence agencies are good for anything then they're doing all they can on this.

But if there were some specific intelligence, along the lines of what I describe above, that Obama thought justified a big escalation on our part, I think he would just tell us. Or he would hint at it. Or something. But I don't see him doing that.

Does that make sense? What day is this? Where am I?