Come Up To The Table, And We’ll Argue Whether To Stay Or Go

Ross Douthat at NYT:

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

The first is what we’re doing now: the counterinsurgency campaign that Gen. David Petraeus championed (and now has been charged with seeing through), which seeks to lay the foundations for an Afghan state that’s stable enough to survive without our support.

The second way is the “counterterrorism-plus” strategy that Vice President Joe Biden, among other officials, proposed last fall as a lower-cost alternative.

Advocates of a swift withdrawal tend to see Biden as their ally, and in a sense they’re right. His plan would reduce America’s footprint in Afghanistan, and probably reduce American casualties as well.

But in terms of the duration of American involvement, and the amount of violence we deal out, this kind of strategy might actually produce the bloodier and more enduring stalemate.

It wouldn’t actually eliminate the American presence, for one thing. Instead, such a plan would concentrate our forces around the Afghan capital, protecting the existing government while seeking deals with some elements of the insurgency. History suggests that such bargains would last only as long as American troops remained in the country, which means that our soldiers would be effectively trapped — stuck defending a Potemkin state whose leader (whether Hamid Karzai or a slightly less corrupt successor) would pose as Afghanistan’s president while barely deserving the title of mayor of Kabul.

Noah Millman at The American Scene on Douthat:

Ross gives three reasons why we won’t leave: first, because we can’t “lose” to the people who attacked us on 9-11; second, because we need Afghanistan as a base to fight in Pakistan; third, because we can’t allow a “vacuum” in Afghanistan that might destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

All the work related to actual American interests is being done by that last sentence. America has an enormous interest in preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda or other groups who might actually use them as weapons of terror; to the extent that our presence in Afghanistan helps prevent that eventuality, you’ve got your justification right there for spending a great deal of blood and treasure. But that “to the extent” is where the real argument is: whether our presence is making things better or worse in terms of stability in Pakistan. Reverse the sign on that equation, and your whole argument blows up.

And, while I don’t want to belabor comparisons between Nixon and Obama that I’ve made before by bringing up the Cambodian incursion, the sign probably should be reversed. The Pakistani military and intelligence services bankrolled the Taliban for years. But their goal is to secure their rear, to make sure that Afghanistan does not become an ally of any potentially hostile power (the old Soviet Union once, now Iran or India) and thereby become a potential base for operations against them. Given that our war in Afghanistan is very unpopular in Pakistan, and is directly contrary to the interests of the Pakistani military, it’s not at all clear why we should assume as a given that the war serves the interest of securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against capture by terrorists.

I mean, think about it. The purported goal of our counterinsurgency campaign is to prop up an Afghan state capable of surviving “on its own.” But “on its own” certainly doesn’t mean “able to avoid being undermined by Pakistan,” a vastly larger and more powerful country next door with a profound interest in Afghan affairs. So what exactly does it mean?

Let’s be honest. The United States attacked Afghanistan not because we could not tolerate a failed state that played host to terrorists – Afghanistan isn’t the only one of those in the world, and it’s far from clear that the war and occupation was either necessary or sufficient to achieve that aim – nor because we were worried about Pakistan being destabilized by the Taliban next door – if anything, we were worried from the beginning that our attack would destabilize Pakistan, indeed that al Qaeda attacked us precisely because they knew we would respond, and that our response might destabilize Pakistan, finally delivering its nukes into their hands – but because al Qaeda attacked us on 9-11 and we needed to respond by destroying those who attacked us, lest we invite further attack. If we had carried the bodies of Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri out of Tora Bora, we would not now be debating how to achieve “victory” in Afghanistan; rather, we’d be talking about what policies would be most likely to prevent a recurrence of a 9-11-type attack. And, in that hypothetical scenario, even if the Taliban were still active on both sides of the Af-Pak border, I’m not at all sure that Ross would be taking the view that we should occupy Afghanistan indefinitely for the sake of stability in the region.

Millman then references this Matt Yglesias piece in the Daily Beast:

Afghanistan and Iraq are different in many ways, but the “good war” could also benefit from some reframing. In particular, we’re currently suffering from a bad case of unrealistic expectations. The United States went into Afghanistan with a pretty clear goal of getting the bad guys responsible for 9/11. We succeeded to some extent, but failed to nab the key leaders, at which point Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq. He didn’t, however, either declare victory in Afghanistan or admit failure. Instead, he shorted resources for the mission even while allowing it to be reframed in terms of grandiose aspirations to create a functioning, democratic Afghan central government.

Perhaps at some point this would have been achievable, but years of drift have made the goal ever more distant. What’s more, the government of Afghanistan centered around Hamid Karzai simply hasn’t proven itself to be especially capable or well-intentioned. Consequently, the surge of forces McChrystal’s been overseeing appeared to be going nowhere fast—killing Taliban operatives and flushing money around the country even while the legitimacy and credibility of the Afghan government continued to erode. Utterly committed to the goal of winning the war, McChrystal has been coming into conflict with other members of the Obama administration over his willingness to pour an essentially limitless quantity of money and manpower down the drain in an effort to crush the Taliban.

Strategically, this just doesn’t make sense. Despite the military’s best efforts to repackage old information about lithium reserves as a newfound trove of wealth, Afghanistan is a poor, distant, landlocked country containing essentially nothing of value. It would be much more reasonable to restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level. The politics, however, are bound to be treacherous, especially for a Democrat with reason to fear opportunistic attacks from the warmongering right.

Douthat responds:

Noah Millman’s critique of my column today makes reasonable points about the potential advantages of accepting failure in Afghanistan and simply picking up and leaving. I wish, though, that he’d reckoned a bit more with what I intended to be the thrust of the piece — namely, the fact that what many critics of counterinsurgency keep presenting as an exit strategy (drawing down troop levels and focusing on counterterrorism) might well turn out to be anything but.

Millman praises the realism of this Matt Yglesias piece, for instance, but note where Yglesias ends up: He concludes that American policy toward Afghanistan should “restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level.” Aiming for “a more sustainable” American presence doesn’t sound like a policy oriented toward an actual withdrawal; rather, it sounds like a recipe for what Rory Stewart, in an essay admirable for its honesty about the scope of the commitment he has in mind, suggested would be 20 years or more of muddling through in Afghanistan.

This possible future seems at once unacceptable and all-too-plausible. And it’s precisely because I don’t think we can afford to spend upwards of two decades heavily invested in the Hindu Kush that I’m unwilling to give up on the hope of a more decisive outcome — not a final victory, which I agree is a chimera, but a shift in the balance of power in Afghanistan that makes it easier for leading U.S. policymakers to embrace a real withdrawal. I’m not optimistic that this is attainable, but I’m very pessimistic about what seems to be the other option on the table at the moment — and the main purpose of today’s column was to explain the reasons for my pessimism, not to attempt to permanently settle the “should we stay or should we go?” debate.

The Rory Stewart essay Douthat mentions, in the New York Review of Books:

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.1

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

Millman responds to Douthat:

I want to thank Ross Douthat, first of all, for responding to my critique of his latest column, and I think I understand better what he’s getting at. Now let me see if I can clarify what I am getting at.The choices Ross presented in his column, and that are usually presented, are between trying to win and just muddling through. The third, usually excluded choice, is: planning for the exit. Ross explicitly excluded that choice by simply saying that the Obama Administration is not considering it and that “the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.” But neither of these are arguments for staying – they are arguments for not considering whether we should stay because we simply will. He chose to frame the question that way, and that framing shaped my response.

To grapple with the heart of Ross’s argument, then. Apart from the overarching point that our resources, our responsibilities, and our interests are all limited, the key point that Rory Stewart makes in his article that Ross cites as “admirably honest” is that “[t]here are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” If this is true, then if our goal is overwhelmingly to keep al Qaeda from again regaining its prior position in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Pakistan, then we should not assume that defeating the Taliban and/or keeping them out of power should be a primary war aim. Right now, nearly all the discussion about Afghanistan is predicated on the assumption that the American goal is to keep the Taliban out of power. If, instead, the assumption were that the Taliban, in some form, was inevitably going to return to power – not necessarily to exclusive power, of course – then we’d be having a very different conversation.

The key questions are: what does Pakistan (or the Pakistani army) really want; is it well-aligned with what we want; can they deliver; and can we live with giving them whatever it is they want that doesn’t dovetail with what we want.

My sense is that Pakistan wants a docile Afghanistan dominated by the Pashtun majority that is beholden to Islamabad and, in particular, doesn’t have any meaningful relations with India. Al Qaeda is more a threat to their regime than to us, so I should think if our preeminent war aim is to separate al Qaeda from the Taliban, that our aims are well-aligned in that regard. Whether we can live with Afghanistan being turned into a Pakistani puppet is another question – but it’s a question worth asking.

Whether Pakistan can deliver is another story entirely, but it strikes me as very peculiar indeed to believe simultaneously that the Pakistani army can’t be relied on but that after a decisive effort we could hand the reins over to the Afghan army.

The question remains: does occupying Afghanistan recruit more than 50 terrorist for al Qaeda? At 51 new Jihadists, we are creating more terror than we are defeating in Afghanistan. And since the only way to tackle al Qaeda in Pakistan is by exactly the kind of tactics that Biden – and not Petraeus – has suggested for Afghanistan, one has to ask if pursuing counter-insurgency in one place and counter-terrorism in another is … well, spectacularly incoherent. You get all the human and fiscal cost of counter-insurgency occupation and all the blowback and Jihadist-recruitment of counter-terrorism.

Then there’s the factor that Ross doesn’t even mention: what if the core object of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is, in the best of all possible worlds, simply impossible? What if that failed state, after a generation of religious and ethnic warfare, cannot be turned into a functional state at any price in any foreseeable time-frame? Washington doesn’t like to believe there are some things it simply cannot do. Even now. Even after Iraq, they still believe in their power to do anything.

This is how great powers destroy themselves. By the pride of elites and the fears of the masses.

Douthat responds to Millman:

The point has been made, correctly, that much of David Petraeus’s accomplishment in Iraq involved managing expectations, shifting goalposts, cutting deals, and redefining “victory” to mean a halfway decent outcome rather than a triumph for democracy. But these essentially political successes were inseparable from the surge’s military gains, which strengthened America’s hand and improved the position of Maliki’s government even as they weakened the irreconcilable elements of the insurgency and incentivized more compromise-inclined elements to peel off and negotiate. And likewise, the weaker the Taliban’s position in Marja or Kandahar or any other contested territory, the better the chances of a grand bargain that actually stabilizes the country, and that has some hope of holding up without a permanent American presence.The point of a counterinsurgency campaign, in this sense, isn’t to crush the Taliban once and for all. It’s to create an environment in which they feel like they could be crushed, and to turn those security gains to political ends. Whereas so long as the Taliban’s leaders and fellow travelers are convinced that they’ve all but won the war, any “orderly entry” into government that they negotiate is likely to end in disaster — for our interests, and for Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat and Noah Millman at Bloggingheads

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1 Comment

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One response to “Come Up To The Table, And We’ll Argue Whether To Stay Or Go

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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