Friday, October 16, 2009

Taking on the 'middle way' in Afghanistan part 2

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria interviewed two members of the Council on Foreign Relations on his CNN program called GPS. They discussed the war in Afghanistan and whether we should escalate the situation there. One of his guests was President Richard Haass, the other a Senior Fellow by the name of Stephen Biddle. While Fareed is also a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he neglected to mention this to his audience. Incidentally, he also clearly agrees with Richard Haass.

While I thought that Mr. Biddle made a very good case, I kept thinking that much was being left out, much was not be addressed, and frankly, often times it felt like Mr. Zakaria was sort of setting the program up for Mr. Haass... So often I found myself thinking of retorts to what Mr. Haass had to say and feeling disappointed that much of it wasn't addressed.

For what it's worth, I decided to provide my own responses to what Mr. Haass had to say:

“…I don't believe that those who are advocating greater force levels have made a persuasive case. They've not shown, first, that Afghanistan real estate is essential to the effort against terror. If al Qaeda is denied Afghanistan, as they largely are right now, they simply take up residence in other countries and mount their efforts from there.

So, it's not obvious to me that this is vital to the United States as part of our counter-terror effort.

Terrorists don't need to take up sanctuary in Afghanistan in order to destabilize Pakistan. After all, they've already taken up sanctuary in Pakistan itself. That's the real issue here.” ~Richard Haass

Quite the contrary, I’d say those in favor of a greater force level in Afghanistan have made a compelling case. Gen. McChrystal, who is in charge of combat operations in Afghanistan and is often credited as being the best when it comes to counter-insurgency, seems quite clear that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. To the point that the Taliban is not only making a resurgence but there is a genuine risk now of the central government there being toppled.

It would undoubtedly be a very serious setback to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda if the Taliban, who had permitted al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan prior to and after 9/11, were to return to power. This is, afterall, why we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place—to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaeda. Mr. Haass would likely agree that the war in Afghanistan was a necessity in 2001. I fail to see how keeping the Taliban from returning to power and al-Qaeda from regaining a safe haven in Afghanistan wouldn’t still be a necessity today.

Mr. Haass is correct in stating that currently al-Qaeda is largely denied safe haven in Afghanistan. The goal here, in regards to Afghanistan at least, should be to keep denying them safe haven there.

~“Well, there's something bizarre or even preposterous about this entire argument [Stephen Biddle’s argument: ‘The main purpose … of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a contributor to a difficult problem of instability in Pakistan.], then, because we have a situation where we are contemplating doing a lot more in Afghanistan, so that Pakistan is not destabilized. Yet, it's either the inability or the unwillingness of the Pakistani government to crack down on groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan itself.

That's a big part of the problem. So, there's a disconnect in the argument for the strategy.

Can I add one other thing, Fareed? I also think it's important -- we've got to broaden this beyond simply military tools.

Why do we assume that, even if the Taliban were to come back into Afghanistan, that the Taliban of 2009 and '10 would necessarily be exactly what they were a decade ago? Maybe they would think twice this time before allowing al Qaeda to take up shop. Or maybe this time, we could use dollars and other incentives in order to get at least some of the Taliban to act differently.” ~ Richard Haass

First of all I don’t think anyone would disagree that we need to broaden the situations both in Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond mere military solutions. That’s a given. In fact, that’s been part of our problem over the past several years. Fortunately, we finally have a president putting forth a foreign policy that is giving Afghanistan its due diligence. Now if only we can get the American public to give him and Gen. McChrystal time to put their ideas into action and measure results. Eight months is certainly not enough time.

I find it naïve, however, this notion that if the Taliban were to come back to power they would be a kinder, gentler version and less likely to allow al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan. One would certainly be highly uninformed of Pashtun culture to come to the conclusion that either money or threats or past defeats would convince the extremely devout Islamist fanatics which make up the Taliban to disregard their deeply held, pre-Islamic customs on hospitality, among other things. (This is the same kind of thinking that would have led the biblical Lot to offer his daughters to be raped in order to spare his guests—the angels—the same fate by a violent mob in Sodom, as depicted in the Old Testament Genesis 19:6)

I think if you take a serious look at the culture in Afghanistan you would find that the locals cannot be bribed like they could in, say, Iraq. And even if we could, how long shall we bribe them? What happens when the money runs out, as it inevitably does? This just sounds like the same sort of solutions that created the Taliban when we armed the Mujahideen to defeat the Soviets and then ultimately left them with lots of weapons, no money, no government, and no infrastructure. The U.S. is great at throwing money at situations but it rarely solves actual problems, in part because we rarely continue to follow through.

~“[the war in Afghanistan] it's clearly a war of choice. The interests at stake are less than vital in Afghanistan, and I think there's something of a consensus here. It's not central to the global struggle against terrorism. Where we may disagree is on how central it is to Pakistan.

But you put your finger on it exactly. Getting involved in Afghanistan because of Pakistan is, at best, second-best. It's an indirect strategy. It would make much more sense to be more involved in Pakistan directly.” ~ Richard Haass

I think our interests in keeping al-Qaeda from having a safe haven in Afghanistan is every bit as vital as they were in 2001. I can’t imagine why someone would conclude otherwise. I’d add, too, that it is very important in regards to the situation in Pakistan.

Defeating al-Qaeda in Pakistan will be very difficult for many reasons—among them geography, local animosity toward the Pakistan government and particularly the United States, the fact that Pakistan is a sovereign nation that isn’t likely to stand for a great deal of U.S. military action in its borders, and the fact that the government there hasn’t been particularly proactive about dealing with the Taliban nor al-Qaeda—but this would only be compounded if the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any insurgent groups were able to bolster forces on the Afghanistan side. We have to remember that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a very porous border.

Again, we should be more involved with the Pakistan government and taking a more active role in countering the Taliban/al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan, I don’t think anyone is denying this, and we are doing so, but we can’t do this as a replacement for ensuring al-Qaeda does not gain a safe haven in Afghanistan again. In other words, Afghanistan is an addition to the serious problem situation in Pakistan, and vice versa, it is not independent of, or unrelated to it. We cannot ignore one, in order to give more attention to the other. It’s cliché to say, I know, but we really have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

~“Second of all, as this conversation makes clear, we have alternatives. We have options. What makes a war of choice, at the end of the day, a war of choice is the fact that you have options other than emphasizing going to war or, in this case, increasing the size of U.S. combat forces.

This is a classic war of choice.

And I'd simply point out that after President Obama used the phrase "war of necessity" about a month ago, unless I am mistaken, I've not heard him use it again. And I think that's consistent with the fact that the administration is rethinking its policy. Because if this were a war of necessity, there'd be no argument about what General McChrystal wants, and we'd put in 40,000 troops now. And we'd put in another 40,000, if that's what it took.

We are clearly not going to do this. And I would say that's an implicit recognition that Afghanistan, whatever it is, is a war of choice, is not a war of necessity, and the United States has real foreign policy options.” ~ Richard Haass

First of all I’d like to put this “war of choice” narrative to rest. If one assumes that denying al-Qaeda a safe haven in Pakistan (or, really, anywhere), is a vital United States interest, which I would strongly argue that it is, then the war in Afghanistan is clearly a war of necessity.

Second, there are other ‘options’ we can choose, yes, but I would certainly argue that we do not have viable alternatives to keeping al-Qaeda from re-forming in Afghanistan. We need to make some strategy adjustments, we need to focus more on Pakistan than we have been, give more aid to Pakistan, put more emphasis on training Afghan security forces, put more effort on rebuilding in Afghanistan—all of which we are doing, by the way— and deal with the incredibly complex political situations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but we also need to ensure that al-Qaeda does not gain a safe haven in Afghanistan again. To do this Afghanistan must not be a hospitable place for al-Qaeda, which would require that the government not be friendly to it and that there is adequate security to keep them from reforming there.

To accomplish all of this Gen. McChrystal (and others) believe he needs at least 40,000 more combat forces and I agree. This is why I don’t believe there is a valid argument against giving the General what he says he needs. I think the resistance to this is misguided at best.

~“One of the reasons I don't like the shorthand word "surge" is, the centerpiece of what turned things around to some extent in Iraq was never the absolute number of U.S. forces. It was what they did. And even more, it was their partnering with the Sunni tribes.

I think that has real consequences for Afghanistan. It suggests that what we need is not so much more U.S. troops, which inevitably will provoke a nationalist reaction, as Steve just suggested.

What we really want to do is get the Afghans to bear a larger part of the burden. And that means accelerating the building up of the central police and army forces and, even more, accelerating the building up of regional forces, so-called warlords, or what have you. There are some pilot projects along those lines. I would really make that work.

And there's one other reason, Fareed, the United States does not want to pour more forces into Iraq, besides the human one. We've got an entire foreign policy chessboard to think about.

My hunch is, we're going to have to keep tens of thousands of forces in Iraq much longer than people now expect. We want to keep some forces in reserve to deal with the Iranian scenario.

We have to think about North Korea. We've also got to allow our military to rest.

I simply don't believe, given the actual and potential challenges that are going to come the way of the United States militarily over the next couple of years, that we have the luxury of allowing such a high percentage of our forces to be in Afghanistan. Again, the interests simply don't warrant it.” ~ Richard Haass

I would say that what turned things around in Iraq was a combination of several factors, and among them was partnering with Sunni tribes, which we need to do much more of but in gaining their support it certainly helps to convince them that they’re about to lose and that we are on the winning team. Changes in strategy are critical, for instance, actually holding and building areas that we clearer, and increasing our combat forces to adequate levels will allow us to achieve this clear, hold and build strategy. Which, of course, brings us down to square one here. Painful as it is, we need more combat troops in Afghanistan and we need them as soon as possible.

Clearly we must focus more on building up local police and military in Afghanistan, this cannot be overstated, but again, one cannot build up such forces if they’re being killed off or recruited nearly as fast as they are being trained and armed. And I think that is some of what we’ve been seeing.

I also think there is another angle to this. If you want to get locals to put real effort into rebuilding and securing their communities, their nation, it’s critical that they have a sense of national pride. The Afghan people are a very proud people, but they are not proud of their government. I don’t think you see a strong desire to build their nation up and protect what is build because of a lack of involvement in governing and a lack of substantive results.

As for the overall troop levels of the United States and making efforts to keep more in reserve. It’s something to give serious thought to, but frankly it sounds a bit disinegenuous for folks who oppose military action in Iran and North Korea to be using this as an excuse for why we should not send more troops to Afghanistan. I don’t know what Richard Haass has planned, but I’m certainly not anticipating or advocating military involvement in Iran and North Korea. And I also wouldn’t recommend determining our combat forces around what might happen in Iran or North Korea.

~“Well, they [“the bad guys”] may, in fact, think that [“they’re going to win”]. That's one of the reasons that we need to accelerate our training-up of the Afghans, both in Kabul and beyond.

Let me just make it clear, Fareed. I'm not sitting here arguing the United States should abandon Afghanistan. And to the best of my knowledge, no one in the room with President Obama is advocating that, either.

The real choice is whether we increase the American investment or essentially keep it roughly the same size or slightly lower, and more importantly, change the mix of it. And that's what I'm advocating, that we change the mix, we change the orientation, put less of an emphasis on increasing U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, but increase our training, increase our working with the warlords, do more in Pakistan itself, and use other means to try to persuade the Taliban to gradually stop opposing us.

I don't think you'll get a quick turnaround. I think you can get a gradual improvement in the situation that way. And it's an improvement that's commensurate with our interests, which again, are not vital.

It doesn't make sense, when you're designing a national strategy for the United States, to invest more in the way of money or lives or our military might in one area where the stakes essentially don't warrant it. We have to be careful not to distort our foreign policy. And too great of an investment in Afghanistan, I fear, at this time, coming on the heels of Iraq, which itself was a distortion, would simply compound it.

The United States has vast interests around the world. And the idea that, for a decade or two decades, the preponderance of what we do in the world would be about two countries called Iraq and Afghanistan, that is stunning in a world of China, Russia, what's going on in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

It would be hard to design a foreign policy that was more distorted, more of a mismatch between our interests and our capacities." ~ Richard Haass

China, Russia? I’m unaware of what sort of crisis is looming that will require military involvement with those countries. Even if so, I can’t imagine what having 40,000 or even 140,000 troops in Afghanistan would do to make war with those countries any less of an absolute catastrophe. And I’m puzzled about what in Latin America is going to require tens of thousands of troops that we can’t possibly spare in Afghanistan. As for Africa. I think Yemen and Somalia could likely become serious problems in the foreseeable future, but then we have serious problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now that we cannot put off for what might happen elsewhere.

Leaving even Afghanistan to the wolves as we come home, recharge and head into Yemen, for instance, will lead us to have to deal with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan too. We cannot afford that.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but, again, I think Gen. McChrystal and others are arguing, and I agree from what I’ve read of this, that we cannot successfully build up the local Afghan forces without increased combat troop deployment. If we are going to convince the insurgency and some of those working with them but who are not necessarily beholden to them, we have to strike a serious enough blow that is convincing that they are, in fact, on the losing side. Training locals, though it is essential, frankly isn’t intimidating. It takes an overwhelming force, consecutive losses to convince folks who will be the victor and who will be the loser.

Between the choice of status quo or advancing to a degree that is necessary to secure Afghanistan, I think the choice is obvious. The status quo is deteriorating. We were victorious in our early efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Unfortunately the Bush administration took our efforts away from Afghanistan to concentrate on Iraq and we’ve taken some serious losses because of it. But we have a chance now to try to correct this. But it won’t be easy.

Scaling down is not the solution. We are going to have to make up for lost time and also be smarter about how we advance in Afghanistan. And we have to take Pakistan much more seriously than we did under the Bush administration. I think the Obama administration is well aware of this.



In closing I thought I should point out that in the aired version, I noticed on Fareed's program that before the commercial breaks he repeatedly played previews of comments by Richard Haass, whom he clearly agrees with, and none by Stephen Biddle. He also made a point to clarify for the audience that Richard Haass had not claimed that the first Gulf War was a war of choice, rather, that the second one was. I certainly agree, but I found it interested that Mr. Zakaria brought this up, almost as if to convince the audience that he's not some anti-war peacenik. Given what he now describes the war in Afghanistan and suggests what we do there, he might as well be.

I also noted that in closing the show Fareed was praising the Council on Foreign Relations for being able to provide two viewpoints, that of Mr. Haass and Mr. Biddle, without acknowledging the fact that he himself, as moderator, was also a member of the same organization.

While I have watched Mr. Zakaria's program regularly since it first aired, I've been most disappointed in his recent suggestions about Afghanistan, but also in his apparent involvement in what seems to me a sort of organized propaganda effort put forth by the Council on Foreign Relations to convince the public about what our next course of action should be in foreign policy. I think the American public should know just how influential this unelected group has become.

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