No End In Sight. . .In Afghanistan


(photo credit: Spencer Ackerman)
US military crusade chronicler Spencer Ackerman has written a long, thoughtful treatment of the issues and players wrestling over the tough calls President Obama must soon make on America’s course in Afghanistan. It’s titled “The Decision” and appears in The National.
I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, but here is a chunk I wanted to share:

The Bush administration viewed Afghanistan as a nation-building sinkhole that distracted from the war it wanted to fight. Accordingly, the military prioritised Iraq, and so no talented officer had any incentive to innovate in Afghanistan. The Democratic Party, all the way up to Barack Obama, insisted that Afghanistan was the truly necessary war, and turned it into a cudgel to be used against the Iraq war. American Journalists made careers in Iraq and barely asked for embeds in Afghanistan; their editors ticked the box by running an annual short feature, usually about how Afghanistan was the “forgotten war”. There was no critical thought from anyone about arresting Afghanistan’s deterioration, and half-true clichés about a “Graveyard of Empires” accumulated. That was the brittle architecture underlying the national consensus about Afghanistan. Without the supporting wall of Iraq, it has now collapsed.
Out of its wreckage, Obama will make two critical decisions in the coming weeks: whether a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is suitable for the country’s woes; and whether a second troop increase in the span of a year is required to wage it. Obama’s advisers, military and civilian, are locked in a debate over how to provide an alternative to Holbrooke’s admission. Some, like Vice President Joseph Biden, contend that the complexities of counterinsurgency are both insurmountable and unmoored from the stated goal of removing al Qa’eda as a security threat. Others, like Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, contend that the United States has already spent eight years attacking al Qa’eda and senior Taliban leaders without regard for the conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the militants exploit to retain support.
But there is another debate layered on top of that one, both inside the administration and across the Washington foreign-policy community in general. That debate is about the meaning of the Afghanistan war and the scope of American commitment to it. But it is also about what lessons to draw from the Iraq war, and whether they can be exported to Afghanistan.
All of the ideological attention in Washington previously committed to Iraq is now flooding into Afghanistan – or at least to the simulacrum of Afghanistan that exists in Washington. That still-congealing ideology forms the prism through which Obama’s ultimate decisions will be viewed. What was once a relatively simple (though operationally complex) mission to avenge the September 11 attacks has since been overtaken by theories about how to establish lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If those theories are correct, the United States may endure a period of bloody hardship but reap the benefits of radically diminishing the threat of al Qa’eda. If not, it will court disaster.

I spoke today to one of the nation’s very top analysts of affairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and this person made the point that whereas the military establishment fired a general in the course of the war and has tried to push reset to deal with realities on the ground as they have found them — whether one believes in the course the Pentagon is taking or not — the political strategy is simply missing, ad hoc, seemingly without strategic depth. This person asked how the administration could not have planned for the election scenarios, fraud, and general mismanagement of the civil society scene during these last few months.
And this person has generally been strongly supportive of both US military and non-military engagement in Pakistan and Afghanistan — but this person echoes my own sentiments that the administration is confused, disoriented, and multi-headed about what to do in Afghanistan.
After eight years of inertia-driven engagement, it’s time to work out a new strategy and endgame.
— Steve Clemons


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