Baby Steps in Afghanistan
The Obama administration rolled out its revised approach to Afghanistan this past week. Most of it was leaked before the actual announcement, which seems to be the Obama style of making sure there are no major shock waves when formal announcement time occurs. The “strategy” it laid out was hardly surprising, shocking, or innovative. Rather, it looked like one more incremental step into the Afghan morass. As such, it pleased neither the advocates of the war, who would like more decisive additions, or to the opponents, who want the war ramped down, not up.What it proposed were in essence baby steps of escalation, which is eerily reminiscent of Vietnam.
The President essentially proposed three things. The first, and most significant, was to state unequivocally what the mission is: to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy” Al Qaeda. All actions are tied to that goal. That meant, among other things, that Obama has abandoned to the pile of hoped-for-but-not-expected-or-required outcomes of the conflict producing a democratic Afghanistan (a staple part of the Bush goals). Since democratizing Afghanistan in any western sense has always been a chimera, that at least makes the approach a little more realistic. It is not, however, quite clear either what outcome the United States expects or will tolerate in the August Afghan elections, or how our actions will contribute to those ends. The goal of what David Petraeus called the “Af-Pak” strategy (ycch!), however, is clearly Al Qaeda. No one is likely to dissent from that goal; there is still plenty of room for disagreement about how to get there.
Presumably the United States seeks an outcome where Afghanistan and Pakistan will be hostile grounds for Al Qaeda–where they will no longer be able to find refuge. The second and third elements of the strategy are aimed at that end. The second is the dispatch of an additional 4,000 (beyond the 17,000 already ordered) Americans to Afghanistan, although in the role of trainers of the Afghan security forces (the Afghan National Army or ANA). The goal is to speed the development of the ANA to a point that it can take on increasing parts of its own self-defense. There was no mention about altering the tribal constitution of the ANA, a problem raised in an earlier post in this space. This goal is reminiscent of the parallel effort in Iraq (outcome in progress) and in Vietnam (outcome a failure).
The third element is to funnel additional economic and developmental funding into both Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially into the contested Pashtun areas (the strategy does not specifically identify the areas as Pashtun). This element of the strategy begs the questions both of where the money is supposed to come from and whether it will do measurable good. In the case of both additional troop numbers and aid levels, expect there to be additional requests. Petraeus hinted as much in his interview with John King today, saying Obama had not denied a single request for more yet and that we will all have to wait and see if this is enough (want to guess whether it is or not?).
These are all small, timid, baby steps reminiscent of how the United States got gradually deeper and deeper into Vietnam, and the fact that Obama has adopted this approach is puzzling, even troubling. His support base wants out of Afghanistan, but he has joined forces with the opposition who believes Afghanistan is too important to abandon. His supporters say we cannot win in Afghanistan; his opponents say Afghanistan is too important to lose. Something has convinced him that the latter argument has sufficient merit that he is turning his back at least part of the way on those who oppose the war and thought he would lead us out of it. In this confusing situation, he has chosen the least risky, politically safest route–that of incrementalism.
This strategy makes short term, tactical sense, but does it wash in the longer haul? Probably not. An extra 4,000 trainers and a few billion dollars is not going to transform Afghanistan from an environment hostile to the U.S. to one hostile to Al Qaeda. When it does not, there will be cries to do just a little more; we heard that in Vietnam and succumbed to it, and it was a losing strategy. Moreover, the longer we are there and the more effort we pour in, the more two contradictory things will happen. One is that war weariness will increase, and Obama’s popularity will decline. The other is that the sunk costs will continue to increase, and with each increment, it will become a little harder to disengage because of the investment already made. One force suggests it is better to get out while the getting is no worse; the other says stay because it is too expensive to leave. This sounds like a Hobson’s choice.
President Obama, in justifying his economic policies, chides those who would defer one or more elements with the accusation their calls for delay simply “kick the can” down the road for others to solve. But isn’t an incremental increase in the American commitment–baby steps–simply a way to kick the Afghan war down the road for some future time? It certainly looks that way to me.