Cordesman On Afghanistan

Anthony Cordesman has an important piece up on where we are in Afghanistan today.Shockingly, I disagree with him in many areas. But possibly, just possibly, not in his conclusions.

His piece has seven sections:

The Strategic Importance of Afghanistan and the Case for Staying in the War

Can This Mission Be Successful? Can We Win?

Estimating the Enemy

Deadlines and Expectations

Accepting Afghans as Afghans

The Civil-Military Side of the War

The Reality of Continuing Risk

Let me talk about the first one now, and move through the rest as I have time.

Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain. The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world, and inserting itself into Russia’s “near abroad,” China’s sphere of influence, and India’s ambitions makes no real sense. Geography, demographics, logistics, and economics all favor other nations, and no amount of academic hubris can realistically model American reform of the “Stans” in ways that are cost-effective relative to other uses of US resources.

Well, if you look at spatial geography, that’s absolutely true. But in the world we live in today, geographic geography – spatial geography – is only one of the maps on which we have to operate. We also have to operate in the space of cultural geography, and I wish just once that someone with deep expertise in this area would talk about what Afghanistan means.

The carefully spun good news story about Afghan minerals may or may not prove to be economically realistic. It is all too typical of a long series of “breadbasket” arguments that take problem countries and argue that their natural resources can make them wealthy or that they can become major exporters of agricultural products. In practice, it will be at least half a decade before Afghanistan’s mineral resources will pay off, and the key outside investors are likely to be Chinese, Russian, and local. It is very unlikely that firms can compete without bribes and incentives as the cost of doing business, and even if US registered companies do invest, they are likely to operate as non-US entities in ways than minimize any economic benefits to the US.

I actually wonder if the minerals story isn’t more for internal consumption in Afghanistan – to motivate Karzai and the warlords to think that there may be a pot of gold (or lithium) that they can dip into if only there were stability.

The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability. One should have no illusion about today’s insurgents. The leading cadres are far more international in character, far better linked to Al Qa’ida and other international extremist groups, and much closer tied to extremists in Pakistan. If they “join” an Afghan government while they are still winning (or feel they are winning), they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world.

He’s absolutely right here – and I wish that the balance of this analysis focused more deeply on the linkages he’s delineating and what they mean for our policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Experts disagree sharply about Pakistan’s instability and vulnerability in the face of a US and ISAF defeat in Afghanistan. There is no way to predict how well Pakistan can secure its border and deal with its own Islamic extremists, and Pakistan is both a nuclear state and a far more serious potential source of support to other extremist movements than Afghanistan. A hardline, Deobandi-dominated Pakistan would be a serious strategic threat to the US and its friends and allies, and would sharply increase the risk of another major Indo-Pakistani conflict.

To a certain extent, this is true; at the same time I think that China and India would have a lot to say about it as a regional matter. More important is the fact that any international salafist/islamist movement would now have a wealthy, secure home.

It should be noted, however, that the US may be forced into leaving Afghanistan regardless of its intentions to stay, or face conditions that make any stable form of victory impossible. Containment from the outside may be the only choice, and having to leave Afghanistan does not mean having to abandon Pakistan. Maintaining a major civil and military aid effort to Pakistan, and keeping US capabilities to work with Pakistan in UCAV and other strikes on insurgent networks is also an option. So is working with Russia to support a rebirth of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to pin down the Taliban and other insurgents as much as possible.

That’s absolutely true; we may have wasted the opportunity to ‘make Afghanistan work,’ if one existed. In the overall context of our world (finances) and politics, and most of all, absent any kind of strategic rationale that our leadership can explain to the rest of us, I doubt our ability to sustain our current efforts in Afghanistan. In fact, I don’t doubt them – it’s not going to happen.

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades -regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions about whether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

You know, here he just jumps off the rails. There is no research showing any links at all to any of these issues; the roots of the radical movement we face are philosophical and social and have little if anything to do with population, poverty, decayed infrastructure. Those simply provide failed state ‘playgrounds’ for the radicalized.

The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow “zero base” history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we.

The questions simply is at what cost, and what for.

Beyond that, there is the question of whether we want (because we certainly don’t have) the kind of army – small, unbureaucratic, lethal, bloody-minded – that would be effective in a place like Afghanistan. I doubt, sincerely that we do today.

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