When political and military historians look back at the protracted U.S. military effort in Afghanistan since 2001, they are unlikely to be impressed with it, either conceptually or operationally. The problem they are most likely to identify is that the enterprise has become rudderless: it is not clear what the United States is doing in Afghanistan, why it is doing it, or how (or whether) whatever we are trying to do can succeed. General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the official name of the enterprise), has only exacerbated the muddle with his recent comments on the subject, intended to reassure the American public but accomplishing quite the opposite.
The basic problem is that the United Sates is attempting to do two things in Afghanistan: eradicate Al Qaeda (or eliminate its leadership) and stabilize Afghanistan as a country. Smashing Al Qaeda was, of course, the original purpose, and the goal that Americans supported, and continue to support, and that is clearly an American interest sufficiently important to justify continuing American military action of one sort or another. Stabilizing Afghanistan is a derivative objective that arose because it appeared the only way to get at Al Qaeda was to sweep aside the Taliban regime that protected them. That tactical decision, however, morphed into an objective to support and sustain the Karzai government we helped put in power to succeed the Taliban. It is not at all clear that this objective is attainable or is in the best American interests. Why do we care who rules Afghanistan?
The official answer, to the extent it is expressed explicitly, is that a stable Afghanistan will be a bulwark against the return of the Taliban and the possible return of Al Qaeda to a new sanctuary state. The question is whether attempting to preclude this possibility is worth the effort that is being expended in its name.
No one argues with an effort aimed at eliminating Al Qaeda . There are two questions about that effort that tend to get lost in the ongoing discussion of Afghanistan, a debate that is really directed at the second, and more questionable goal, of securing the Afghan state. The first question is what kind of effort is likely to achieve the goal: should it be an effort grounded in more or less conventional warfare–or counter insurgency–doctrine? And should a military effort in Afghanistan be its focal point? The answer to neither question is overwhelmingly obvious. A case can be made, for instance, that covert action by small, lethal paramilitary units against Al Qaeda operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan would be more likely to succeed in the long run than what is being done now, and that the current effort is largely irrelevant to this purpose. To the extent that the current effort galvanizes Afghan resistance to intrusive outsiders (in this case us), it may actually be counterproductive.
It has become an implicit part of the Afghanistan debate that countering the insurgency is intimately related to the Al Qaeda mission. There is very littile direct discussion of the Al Qaeda problem, as McKiernan’s recent defenses suggest. When McKiernan says, as he did in yesterday’s New York Times, “We are not losing in Afghanistan. We have insufficient security forces here to adequately provide for the security of the people of Afghanistan,” he is not talking about eradicating Al Qaeda. Rather, he is talking about the second war: the effort to gain control of Afghanistan. And that is a dubious goal and prospect.
What is the problem with a war to “liberate” Afghanistan? First, it is not clear what liberation means or that what we define as liberation matches what the Afghans want. Afghan history, as noted in the last posting, suggests that what they primarily want is to be free of outside interference and presence. When McKiernan says “I do believe that the people of Afghanistan will win in this country,” he may be right, but their definition of victory may be diametrically different than ours. What this suggests is that “victory” in the sense of attaining the political objective of a stable, pro-western Afghanisan under Karzai or a surrogate may simply be unattainable. Second, it is not clear why we care who rules Afgganistan. After we helped the Afghans (including the Taliban and the predecessors of Al Qaeda) kick the Soviets out in the 1980s, we dropped Afghanistan like a rock. Why? Because we had no interests there other than denying control to Russia. Has that changed? If the United States can eliminate Al Qaeda without “liberating” Afghanistan, would it matter what kind of government there was in Kabul afterward? History says no!
There is currently great controversy and grwoing pessimism about the prospects in Afghanistan, the response to which is to call for a bigger effort. The problem is that the pessimism is directed at the second war rather than the first–eliminating Al Qaeda. That has not gone well, but there may be other approaches that are more likely to succeed–turning the military effort covert, engaging in greater political efforts with Pakistan, for instance. Calls to ratchet up the action in Afghanistan do not address this problem, which is the first and real reason for war in Afghanistan. Instead, they speak to the second war, which is going badly because that is basically all it can do. Once again, it represents the American penchant not to learn from or to forget the lessons of previous engagements. Destroying Al Qaeda is not concpdetually like Vietnam, but the second war in Afghanistan may be. The second war broke the Soviet Union, and now it is testing us. You are right, General McKiernan, “the people of Afghanistan will win” the second war, but it may be by beating us.
“NATO Not Losing Afghan War, Commander Says.” New York Times (online), October 12, 2008 (story provided by Reuters).