Tempering Afghan Optimism

The recent announcements and statements of support for President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan have left me a bit confused, and I wonder if readers can help me out here. Something just does not compute.

The rationale of the surge is, like Iraq, to improve conditions in Afghanistan enough to turn thcountry back over to the Afghans, notably the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police (ANP), sometimes collectively referred to as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The idea is that while additional American forces conduct clear and hold operations to secure and maintain control of parts of the country still under Taliban rule, accelerated training of ANSF will yield anative force capable of fending for itself as the United States begins disengagement in 2011.

This whole plan sounds a great deal like Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization program (as Fareed Zakaria points out in this past week’s Newsweek) or possibly David Petraeus Iraqification program of 2007. It will be remembered, of course, that Vietnamization succeeded in providing cover for American withdrawal from Southeast Asia but did not, for a variety of reasons still being debated, result in the desired outcome of a non-communist South Vietnam. The outcome in Iraq, being heralded as a great triumph by some, remains up in the air. Iraqification has provided the cover behind which American withdrawal is occurring; what Iraq will look like after we are gone is a matter of pure conjecture. I am not sanguine we are going to like the final outcome, but that is simply one person’s opinion.

Is that all the additional 30,000 troops are about in Afghanistan? Admitting that President Obama inherited a virtually impossible domestic and international situation in Afghanistan (see my recent post “Obama: Damned If He Does…), this seems a very modest and questionable outcome. Precedent seems unpromising, so why do we think it will work?

The answer, which gets us to my original concern, is that things are different here than in Vietnam, where the parallel policy failed (other than getting us out). We are told that the major difference is that the Taliban, unlike the National Liberation Front (NLF)/Viet Cong (VC), who had widespread political support, the Taliban are almost universally hated in Afghanistan. One poll that is repeatedly cited suggests a mere 6 percent of Afghans support them. Moreover, the South Vietnamese government never had any real popular support, whereas the government of Hamid Karzai has at least the potential for such support. Hold on here!

If the Taliban are as hated as we now maintain, how have they not only kept going but expanded their power and control? Just a couple months ago, American officials were decrying the “almost inexhaustible” supply of potential Taliban recruits that made suppressing them impossible. What has changed? As best one can tell, very little has changed in terms of the basic structure of political loyalties in the country. The Taliban either does have support in the Afghan population (at least among Pashtuns), or it does not. If it lacks support, it may be possible to isolate and “degrade” it. If not, the likelihood of success of the surge is highly questionable, to put it kindly. Which is it?

The other element is the transformation of the ANSF. Developing a native force capable of defending itself from a threat that has been degraded was central to Vietnamization and Iraqification as well: make the task more manageable. It failed in Vietnam, and the outcome in Iraq is still a work in progress. Why should it work in Afghanistan? The official view is that the ANSFcan indeed be developed and that since Karzai himself is not known to be corrupt, maybe his government can gain legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans. The other side os this argument is that it is exactly the lack of popular support for the regime that has fueled the insurgency all along (as is normally the case in insurgencies). What has changed to make people move to support of the regime? That is not clear.

The current optimism over Afghanistanstarts from, it seems to me, some very shaky assessments about what is happening on the ground there. Three months ago, the Taliban appeared to be a virtually unstoppable juggernaut, and now they are a weak and hated canker sore to be excised. During the recent presidential election, the Afghan regime was a hopelessly corrupt bunch of thieves who could only succeed by stealing the election, and now they are a hopeful beacon for the future of Afghanistan. Is this all public relations? Or has something really changed? Help me out here.

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2 Responses to “Tempering Afghan Optimism”

  1. […] relations and national security topics. This essay was originally published at his blog What After Iraq? Photo credit: Getty […]

  2. carlo cristofori Says:

    Re. the question “Is it all public relations that the Karzai regime, which used to be a hopelessly corrupt bunch of thieves, has now become a hopeful beacon for the future of Afghanistan?”

    Yes.

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