Quick Take: Afghanistan

So I’ve been silent on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East lately. Part of that is my newfound difficulty in picking apart my thinking about the issues and my personal feelings, as Biggest Guy gets ready to deploy to Afghanistan as an infantryman. And part of it has been my desire to let events unfold a bit as we see Obama’s initial policy steps and the world’s reaction to them.

I’m not massively anxious about BG going over there (as opposed to being massively anxious that his moms will – in their massive anxiety – do me harm); I am anxious that he do in the name of an overall policy that makes sense, is valid, achievable, and in the national interest.

And, to be honest, up until today, I haven’t heard such a policy about Afghanistan from Obama (or from much of anyone else, to be frank).

But then there was today…

Today I flew to San Francisco to have lunch with Craig Mullaney (along with a dozen or so other people),who is now (as Abu Muquama nee Andrew Exum explains – read the whole interview)

…about to be named the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Central Asia.

and is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education‘ – a book I bought the week it came out and gave to BG after reading it in an afternoon, enthralled.

So when I heard he was talking at a lunch I could attend, I booked a ticket.

Meeting him I was shocked – frankly shocked – at how young he is and seems. My mental dialog was ‘How the hell could someone so young have done so much?’ and then I thought about my kid and all the kids he serves with, and the responsibilities they bear.

And we talked. And talked. And then I asked him, point blank, the Harry Summers question: We can’t win without knowing what winning looks like. What does winning in Afghanistan look like?

And his response was so damn sensible…..here’s a paraphrase of the priorities he laid out:

1) Our primary national interest lies in making sure that Afghanistan is not used as a national staging area for Al Qaeda and other radical Salifist attacks on us and our interests. This mission has been accomplished, with the caveat that it was in part accomplished by simply shoving them over the border to Pakistan.

2) The Taliban is a tiny fraction of the population, and Al-Quieda a smaller fraction. but they are strong enough to intimidate their way to power in the small towns, and to roll that power up to regional and then notional power unless stopped. By standing up the Afghan military and police capabilities, we can offer the Afghan government the capability to repress these forces on their own.

3) None of this matters of we don’t solve the problem of Pakistan, and there is no immediately clear way to solve that problem, politically or militarily.

He certainly did not lay out all his thinking; he artfully dodged some very specific questions.

But I can say that I asked if he had a core set of policy goals he was willing to risk my son’s life for, and he did. And that those policies make sense to me.

I continue to have concerns about Afghanistan (and the wider war). From my reading, it seems that the Afghan people have some trigger point at which they unite in opposition to outsiders; one thing I believed was that our original policies were brilliant because they kept us well below the trigger point. We were one tribe among others, rather than a uniting enemy. I worry that as we scale our involvement, we won’t be.

This isn’t the “invincible Afghan army” meme – they have been defeated and conquered before.

These issues bleed over to the broader question of Iraq and our interaction with the Arab and Muslim world (I separate them because I think they present two very different problems). In 2002, I believed that we could ‘shock’ the Arab governments into moving away from the radicals they were bribing and using as proxies by invading Iraq. In 2009, I called the war ‘a strategic failure‘ – in terms of meeting the goals I set out in 2002, and I believe that today. However, the opportunity exists for a far greater failure, and we need to be thinking hard today about what it takes to avoid that and to maximize the positive outcomes available to us there and in the region.

More on that later…

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2 thoughts on “Quick Take: Afghanistan”

  1. 3) is still the kicker. It means the answer is the same it’s always been. Soldiers are going to Afghanistan to buy time, and hope we can find or catch a break, somehow, in Pakistan.

    Also, 1) is wrong. The USA defeated an expedition from Pakistan, it did not shove the problem there de novo. The Taliban came from Pakistan before they conquered Afghanistan, had and have high-level friends in Pakistan who helped get some of them out when American forces broke their hold on Afghanistan, and continued to enjoy that patronage afterward, despite Musharraf’s efforts to curtail that.

    The insurgency in Pakistan, which is currently more serious than Iraq’s has ever been, happened for a number of reasons. Including the simple fact that the Deobandists’ generation-long ISI suport, and its hate indoctrination and armed training programs in Pakistan’s rural areas, had reached a level of fruition that allowed them to take the next step (Next step after this? Puppet government led by a collaborationist like Gul. The “realists” will be stupid enough to buy it, and the Left will celebrate their co-belligerents’ victory).

    Pakistan backing off a bit in Kashmir also played a role in getting us to this pass, because it constricted the second “safety valve” Pakistan was using in hopes that that its proxies exported terror wholesale, instead of keeping it at home. Upping the risks of nuclear exchange has its drawbacks as a safety valve, of course, and even their backing off isn’t the reason they have an internal problem. It comes down to the simple fact that eventually, the wild and vicious beast you raise decides that you’d look pretty juicy. Especially if you’re holding its ultimate steroidal treat, nuclear weapons.

    Pakistan has always been the center, and Afghanistan the symptom. Which means Pakistan was always going to be the main battleground – it was just a question of when, and how.

    The initial approach was the standard realist “dictator for stability” play. It was a better odds throw than most of its type, and worth a try given the alternatives. It bought time, and shut down A.Q. Khan’s nuclear exports, but ultimately it failed, as that usually does. The next approach was restoration of Pakistan’s feudal democracy, now led by “Mr. 10%”. That, too is failing – if anything, at an accelerated rate.

    It’s probably worth American lives to buy some time in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and build a nearby position. But anything short of an intelligent, no half-measures Pakistan policy will waste – or even betray – their sacrifice. While creating a foreign policy disaster on a scale that America has never seen.

    No pressure, though.

  2. I watched a former NPR reporter named Sarah Chayes make a number of comments about Afghanistan on Charlie Rose tonight, and what struck me was that I can see the logic in a number of very different positions about the “long-war-without-a-name.” On the one hand I think she may have a point that Afghanistan is a kind of barometer of where the larger problem of Taqfirist terrorism will go. On the other, I’m not sure Afghanistan really matters all that much. I feel equally uncertain about another mountain nation, with equally intractable problems: Tibet.

    That is, I know what I’d prefer in Tibet as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, but I can’t see the way from here very well, because the terrain has become a fluid cipher.

    I had a Chinese roommate in grad school who insisted on the fiction that China was occupying Tibet out of some realistic/historical concern about “Tibetan Imperialism.” I’m serious. This was a fellow who had been thoroughly westernized, supported liberalizing China, but who had swallowed the propaganda so thoroughly that making sense to him was simply out of the question.

    But where he had been propagandized from birth there are lots and lots of very intelligent people in “the West” who believe some amazingly nutty things, and they’re swept up in that current of sentiments largely because they lack the inspiration to resist, a loss that I can’t help feel must have been cultivated by a mix of bad pedagogy and Weber’s “iron cage,” where the protestant ethic and the spirit wind up as “mere sport.”

    I have this impression that I need to climb out of the mess a moment and take a look around. The waters have risen imperceptibly until there are only featureless waves, like the distant memory of actual terrain. I understand what it must have been like for my emigrant ancestors to leave the familiar hills and valleys to strike out across a forbidding ocean with only an imprecise reckoning, and a vague hope of what the destination might hold.

    No pressure, indeed.

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