The Afghanistan conundrum could not be simpler for all of its complexity: What can the U.S. do differently than other great powers did over the last two centuries to bring that country to heel? Put somewhat differently, what can the U.S. do to avoid the kind of stalemate in a now eight-year-old conflict that bedeviled and ultimately defeated Great Britain and the Soviet Union?
While more troops would seem to be the answer and that is where the debate has been focused, it's not the answer. Granted that throwing more boots into a hydra-headed conflict in a vast country with unforgiving terrain sounds like a no brainer, but the problems don't begin and end with the resurgent Taliban, let alone Al Qaeda, and no amount of troops are going to wipe out centuries of old animosities, a tepid sense of national identity and endemic corruption.
The problems pretty much begin in Washington where the media is obsessed not with whether more troops will matter, let alone whether the U.S. should yet again be in the nation-building business, but General Stanley McChrystal's bitch smack of President Obama.
According to some people, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan may resign if the president doesn't act soon. Translation: Gimme 40,000 troops or else.
If recent reports are to be believed, a confrontation may be inevitable because Obama is said to be inching away from McChrystal's pink pony and toward a strategy advocated by Vice President Biden that would draw down troops and focus on rooting out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. (See the sidebar below this post for details.).
Trust me, McChrystal is not about to resign, although trying to blackmail the commander and chief is reprehensible. (Oh, and he needs to stop calling troops "resources." They're people, sir.)
But McChrystal's salvo has had one immediate effect: Charting a future course in Afghanistan seemed to be a rare instance in these fractious times where there was an opportunity for a semblance of bipartisan accord. I mean, conservative Republicans and their defense industry patrons love wars and Obama inherited a doozy from a guy who diverted troops and resources from a conflict that has had to be fought to one that didn't and is only now slouching to an unsatisfactory conclusion. But bipartisanship is now out the window and Republicans have yet another thing to virulently oppose.
Obama and his advisers must shoulder some of the blame for this turn of events: They set lofty policy goals for Afghanistan that necessarily would include troop increases, but have held back - or perhaps backpedaled -- on green-lighting big increases as Bush did in Iraq until 2007 because of what he saw as the unpleasant political consequences of such an action. The coward in chief finally endorsed a big troop increase and the consequent Surge strategy only because he had to: The war was all but lost.
Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan that war also is all but lost and there are problems aplenty.
Although McChrystal was a controversial choice in some quarters, he got the job because of his counterinsurgency chops and is itching to implement a new strategy.
"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," is how he put it in a widely leaked confidential assessment of the war.
There three big problems with this assessment:
* The much ballyhooed "strategic review" on which the assessment is based was written by people with no discernible Afghanistan expertise who worked hand-in-glove with McChrystal to produce a report that predictably mirrored the general's thinking, repeating a fundamental mistake made over and over in Vietnam.
* McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan mimics key features of the Surge strategy in Iraq such as putting the locals first, but Afghanistan is not Iraq, which actually had a government to base a plan around.
* The Afghan army is a fiction, an agglomeration of men in uniform who draw pay and then melt into the background when the going gets tough. Teaching them to fight, let alone the American ways of war, is simply a waste of time.
And a fourth big problem as well:
Does the U.S. really have a vital interest in Afghanistan that justifies 40,000 more troops, a lengthy occupation, billions of dollars and the likelihood of hundreds if not thousands of American deaths, as well as all those dread unintended consequences that, yes, both Vietnam and Iraq spawned? Eight years on from the 9/11 attacks, it does not have a vital interest.
As the Brits and Russians well know, there is no nation to built. Afghanistan is ungovernable. No amount of infrastructure improvement, GIs fluent in Pashtun, bribe money and wishful thinking is about to change that.
In a way, the Taliban are the least of the U.S.-led NATO coalition's problems. These vile Islamofascists can be confined in the context of a lengthy occupation, but what to do with the rest of an ungovernable country?
A much larger issue is how to attain a modicum of stability in South Asia with Afghanistan a basket case, nuclear-armed and terrorist coddling Pakistan an even bigger basket case, and giant nuclear-armed India at loggerheads with Pakistan. Now that's a vital interest.
I see India, which is well on its way to becoming prosperous and pluralistically stable, as the key player in the region and not the U.S.
Concerted efforts by Washington and its allies to get Delhi and Islamabad to reconcile, including opening their borders, could ultimately pay far greater dividends than taking forever to try to take down the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Back to you, Barack and Stanley.Top photo by Air Force Tech Sergeant Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.
Story sourced from AfPak Channel, The Best Defense,
The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Vet Voice,
The Washington Post and The Washington Independent.