One of the major problems with the Bush Administration and its conservative Republican stalwarts regarding the Iraq War was the “stay the course” dogma which seemed immune to any attempt at an honest evaluation of the war’s goals or purpose. There were no metrics for success, aside from a nebulous goal of “victory”. Proponents of withdrawal were accused of defeatism and virtual treason. The bottom line was that “failure was not an option“, which in the absence of a well-defined success meant perpetual war for its own sake.

President Obama promised a different approach, where success would be clearly defined and measured and the policy would be defined by the facts, not the other way around. The war in Afghanistan will put Obama’s rhetoric to the test. Will he stay the course no matter the facts? Or will he be willing to adapt?

It should be noted that the opportunity for genuine and timely intervention in Afghanistan, as far as halting the spread of Al Qaeda beyond its borders, has passed, due to the colossal diversion of the Iraq war. Al Qaeda has now metastasized and infected numerous other places like Somalia and Sudan, not to mention generated sympathetic cells in Indonesia and even the UK. The horrific post-9-11 attacks on Bali and London drive the point home; the mission of containing Al Qaeda has failed. This is the new reality, which must be the guiding context for our policy in Afghanistan proper.

As far as the Afghanistan campaign itself goes, there’s a great deal of information now that suggests that a revision of our policy is long overdue. Obama’s appointment of Lt. Gen. McChrystal to oversee operations is a positive sign, given the latter’s special forces experience and expertise. Along with his superior General Petraeus, known for his own counter-insurgency warfare doctrines, it’s clear that the military leadership has the right attitude towards the mission – as McChrystal has pointed out, now one primarily of protection rather than of offense. The increase in troops authorized by President Obama (about 20,000, bringing the total to 60,000, plus 40,000 from NATO) are being put to good use:

[McChrystal’s] much-anticipated assessment of the campaign does away with the counterproductive strategies of old, of bombing runs and door-kicking–“disruptive operations”–and emphasizes a sort of armed humanitarianism built upon strong relationships with the local populace. In large measure, the operation becomes a civil affairs mission, and focuses on the doctrine of Military Operations Other Than War. As McChrystal states in his recently issued ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guide, “Earn the support of the people and the war is won, regardless of how many militants are killed or captured.”

Infrastructure is just such a mechanism for change. McChrystal advocates a proliferation of projects across Afghanistan that puts Afghans to work and money in their pockets. Jobs, his assessment reportedly states, will solve sixty percent of the nation’s problems. In addition to building a sustainable, self-sufficient nation on every level, from village schoolhouses to national highway systems, it will build local trust of the U.S. and ISAF soldiers working side-by-side with them.

A hospitable populace is key to McChrystal’s goal of doubling the sizes of both the Afghan army and the police force. Any such plan leans heavily on the force-multiplying Green Berets (in conjunction with U.S. infantry and military police) to recruit and grow the Afghan army. McChrystal, himself a thirty-year Special Forces officer, intends to meet the ambitious target within three years. Any successful exit strategy from Afghanistan will depend on an effective security apparatus.

Not publicly stated, though certainly understood, is that large swaths of combat operations will fall under the domain of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Ruthlessly efficient and surgical in its precision, JSOC operates in “the shadows,” as former Vice President Cheney once described it. While under the command of General McChrystal, it was JSOC who captured Saddam Hussein, and JSOC who killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Indeed, McChrystal personally identified the body.)

In June, President Obama tasked McChrystal with doing a comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan, and his report has finally been submitted. It has not yet been released to the public, but the general gist is well-known – the war is not going well:

The review is expected to confirm that protecting the Afghan people against the Taliban must be the top priority. The document has not been published yet, and the severity of McChrystal’s assessment was difficult to gauge. But at an event last week, according to the BBC, he likened the US military to a bull charging at the matador-like Taliban and slightly weakened with each “cut” it receives.

US officials have spoken openly about the failing war effort in Afghanistan and McChrystal’s report will be a distillation of their strong misgivings. He says the aim should be for Afghan forces to take the lead, but that the Afghan army will not be ready for three years and the police will need longer.

Although the report does not mention increasing troop numbers, the implication is that more soldiers will be needed to turn around an unsuccessful strategy. Officers in Afghanistan consider much of the effort of the last eight years wasted, with too few troops deployed and many of them placed in the wrong regions and given the wrong orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. When was the last time a military problem was identified by the military as not needing more troops to solve? At some point, a request for more troops is inevitable, and that takes the decision from the realm of strategic to the realm of political.

There are already calls from all sides of the political spectrum to reduce our involvement in Afghanistan rather than to increase it. Conservative commentator George Will details a litany of challenges and obstacles to success in Afghanistan and concludes,

…forces 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.

In this, he echoes the decidedly liberal Rory Stewart in the LRB, who makes a more detailed historical assessment, and concludes:

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

So here we are at a crossroads. One one hand, we “stay the course” – which actualy means more commitment, not less. The other is to back away, though not an outright abandonment of the Afghans to their fate. The concern I have, and the context in which I am still trying to assess where I stand on the issue, is that Afghanistan policy can not be considered in a vacuum, but in the broader strategy of containing Al Qaeda and violent extremism globally. And that is something that seems woefully absent from the debate.

The question has to be asked – how much can we do? If Somalia becomes another haven for Al Qaeda on the same scale as Afghanistan, with Al Shabab playing host rather than the Taliban, then are we obligated to replicate the Afghanistan campaign entirely there? Then what about Sudan? There’s an argument for trying to do strategically less than more, not to eradicate, but to contain.

I am still working through my thoughts on this.

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