It’s encouraging that General Jim Jones, the national security adviser, seems to have laid down the law to US generals in Afghanistan: no more troops.
That’s not the same as less troops, but it’s a start.
In a lengthy Washington Post report, Jones is quoted extensively telling the generals that economic development in Afghanistan will win the fight with the Taliban, not more soldiers. And he used rather colorful language to make his point. During the meeting with Jones, General Nicholson, the US commander, dropped hints that he’d like more forces.
The war in Afghanistan has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the crisis next door in Pakistan, but no more. Secretary of Defense Gates has fired the US commander there, General David McKiernan, and replaced him with a counterinsurgency specialist with a spotty track record, General Stanley McChrystal. It’s the first time a wartime commander was fired since Harry Truman got rid of General Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War.
Don’t expect any quick improvement on the battlefront.
A smart commentary on the dual crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan came from Selig Harrison, a longtime expert on Asia at the Center for International Policy, in yesterday’s Washington Post. He raises the critical issue of ethnic Pashtun support for the Taliban. Pashtuns make up about half of Afghanistan’s population and dominate the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. Even though most Pashtuns don’t support the Taliban or their extremist ideas, the Taliban are nearly entirely Pashtun in both countries. The US war effort, including air strikes in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan that kill civilians, are inflaming Pashtun sentiments, and driving Pashtuns and Taliban together.
There were new signs of uneasiness on Capitol Hill about United States involvement in the region. The Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee pronounced himself as “very doubtful” that Mr. Obama’s plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan could succeed. The chairman, Representative David Obey, of Wisconsin, said he would allow only one year for the White House to show concrete results, and repeatedly likened Mr. Obama’s approach to President Richard Nixon’s plans for Vietnam in 1969.
And Obey is planning to attach conditions to aid that President Obama wants:
Mr. Obey, whose committee oversees all federal discretionary spending, said Monday that in the supplemental war-funding bill the House Democrats plan to require the White House to report to Congress next year with measurements of progress from Afghanistan and Iraq in five specific areas: political consensus, government corruption, counterinsurgency efforts, intelligence cooperation and border security.
He added: “I am not going to be looking at those standards like I am the permanent president of the optimists’ club.” At stake is at least $1 billion in immediate funding for Pakistan’s war and for economic aid, along with — potentially — $1.5 billion a year in additional aid that Obama wants for the next five to ten years.
Some analysts here and in Washington are already putting forward apocalyptic timetables for the country. “We are running out of time to help Pakistan change its present course toward increasing economic and political instability, and even ultimate failure,” said a recent report by a task force of the Atlantic Council that was led by former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The report, released in February, gave the Pakistani government 6 to 12 months before things went from bad to dangerous.A specialist in guerrilla warfare, David Kilcullen, who advised Gen. David H. Petraeus when General Petraeus was the American commander in Iraq, offered a more dire assessment. Pakistan could be facing internal collapse within six months, he said.
Thousands of Islamist militants are pouring into Pakistan’s Swat Valley and setting up training camps here, quickly making it one of the main bases for Taliban fighters and raising their threat to the government in the wake of a controversial peace deal.The number of militants in the valley swelled in the months before the deal with the Taliban was struck, and they continue to move in, say Pakistani and U.S. officials. They now estimate there are between 6,000 and 8,000 fighters in Swat, nearly double the number at the end of last year.
Last week, in revealing the outlines of his new plan for Afghanistan, President Obama spoke about “benchmarks” that would be applied to measure progress. The comment inevitably raised parallels to the benchmarks that were demanded by meny members of Congress, including Obama, in regard to the 2007-2008 surge of US forces in Iraq. So far, at least, Obama has released no information about the benchmarks, and that — among other things — is giving rise to concern within the administration and in Congress that public and congressional support for Obama’s Afghan plan might start heading south.
It could have been worse. But there’s a lot of bad news.
I listened to President Obama’s speech, and I spent the morning over at the White House listening to officials there talk about where the Afghan plan is going. Here are some initial thoughts.
President Obama’s new strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan war isn’t Quaker-inspired, but it’s not neocon-inspired, either. It has a lot of moving parts, but if you’re looking for hopeful signs, or for a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps the most important aspect of the plan revealed today is that it’s a work in progress. It sets nothing in stone — meaning that President Obama can adjust the plan — escalate or de-escalate — in the months ahead. What he does will depend on what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will depend on what happens in the United States, too, in Congress, the media, and public opinion.
It’s Afghanistan week, with President Obama’s Afghanistan review complete and the new strategy for the war set to be released any day now. In his 60 Minutes interview, Obama suggested that he’s leaning toward the “minimalist” theory that the war in Afghanistan has to focus on Al Qaeda and that the United States needs “an exit strategy.” From the transcript:
“What we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems. So what we’re looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there’s gotta be an exit strategy. There’s gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift.”
Asked what America’s mission in Afghanistan is, Obama replied:
“Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That’s our number one priority. And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan.”We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can’t lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11. And that is these folks can project violence against the United States’ citizens. And that is something that we cannot tolerate.”
But Obama is sending 17,000 more US troops to the war that can’t be won militarily, and he’s talking about “building up economic capacity in Afghanistan,” which could take many years. Are we prepared to stay for years? Is Obama prepared to spend his entire presidency fighting the Afghan war? That’s the question asked by Jackson Diehl in a Washington Post op-ed today, in which Diehl answers in the affirmative. Citing General David McKiernan, who’s demanding a further buildup, Diehl writes:
McKiernan believes the Afghan army, now at 80,000 members, will have to grow to 240,000 before it can defend the country on its own — and that raising it to that level will take until 2016. Would Obama be willing, or politically able, to devote the entirety of his presidency to a war that has already lasted seven years? The thousands of American soldiers and civilians pouring into the country deserve that strategic patience; without it, the sacrifices we will soon hear of will be wasted.
“President Obama and Congress owe it to both Afghans and Americans to explore a strategy of power extrication before they make another major decision to expand the war.”
That’s the opinion not of some left-wing activist, but of the chairman of the establishment, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. It appears in an op-ed in the New Yortk Times today, entitled: “How to Leave Afghanistan.” It’s especially notable for two reasons: first, it comes on the eve of the release of President Obama’s Afghanistan review, which will be issued this month, and second, because it appears just above a piece called “How to Surge the Taliban” by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, et al. Kagan, his daughter Kimberly, and Max Boot of CFR were invited to Afghanistan by David Petraeus, the Centcom commander. It was Kagan, of course, who was the architect of the Iraq surge and who concludes in this piece that the war against the Taliban will be easier than the one in Iraq’s insurgents. Gelb concludes exactly the opposite:
We can’t defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. … As nasty as the Taliban are, America’s vital interests do not require their exclusion from power in Afghanistan, so long as they don’t support international terrorists. … Trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is unattainable, while finding a way to live with, contain and deter the Taliban is an achievable goal.
Instead of victory, Gelb proposes a diplomatic and economic surge, combined with a timetable for a US withdrawal over three years.
Having spent a while reading about Afghanistan, I’ve collected some resources for anyone who’d like to learn a little more about that godforsaken country and about what various strategists think ought to be done. Pretty much everything I’ve listed below is useful to read, even if you don’t agree with all of the conclusions that analysts come up with.
A good place to start is The Forgotten Front, published more than a year ago by the Center for American Progress. Written by Caroline P. Wadhams, an extremely bright young analyst, and Lawrence Korb, a veteran defense expert, it’s a primer about the war. Many progressives won’t like their conclusion that the United States needs to send more troops. (At the time, when the US had 25,000 troops in country, CAP recommended adding 20,000 more. Currently, there are 36,000 US forces, and President Obama has ordered the deployment of 17,000 more.) And CAP puts too much emphasis on NATO, saying, “A failure in Afghanistan would throw NATO’s relevance into doubt” — as if the war were about NATO, not Afghanistan. But “The Forgotten Front,” even though it is somewhat overtaken by events, is a very useful guide to the issues in the war, complete with maps, charts and graphs.
Across the left and among progressives, there is angst about President Obama’s decision to add 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. Among neoconservatives and the right — judging from a session that I attended yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute – there is angst of another kind. They’re worried that Afghanistan is a “war that we may walk away from,” as Danielle Pletka, AEI’s vice president for foreign defense policy studies put it. And they’re very worried that the Obama administration doesn’t have the stomach to pursue “victory” there. Lets hope they’re right.
True, Obama said he’s ordering the dispatch of 17,000 troops to bolster the 36,000 US forces already in country. But there’s lots of room for a new policy to emerge, since virtually every part of the US national security apparatus is conducting a review of the war, including one led at the White House by Bruce Riedel, who served as Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan-Pakistan during the campaign. There are few doves doing the reviews, but it isn’t at all clear that they’ll endorse the “long war” strategy pushed by General McKiernan, the US commander in Afghanistan, who’s predicting that he’ll need tens of thousands more troops who’ll have to fight a war that might last five years or more. And, at AEI at least, there is great concern that the left and anti-war Democrats will convince Obama not to fight that war.