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…