A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Afghanistan Debate Transforms

Pretty much everyone noted that George Will wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. Because he's a conservative Republican, that draws attention. He's not a neocon, but a traditional conservative, but it's still news when he seems to be arguing we should "bug out" of Afghanistan, to use an old term that goes back to Korea. But the whole national debate over Afghanistan (the war there didn't used to be much debated) has shifted dramatically. And not just on the Democratic side of the fence.

Andrew Exum over at Abu Muqawama, who knows this as well as anybody this side of General McChrystal, has a post on this intensifying debate over the war in Afghanistan.

Here's the gist of the post, though you should read it all:
As I walked out of the [Newshour] studio last night, though, Gwen Ifill turned to me and said, "Look, I understand you're not some fire-breathing hawk, but you're about the only person we can find in Washington to defend this war at the moment."

Woah. The only person who will defend this war? If this blogger is the only person in the nation's capital willing to defend the war, we have a big problem. I'm more used to hosting debates on Afghanistan than participating in them. I do not think it would surprise any reader of this blog, though, to note the speed with which the debate has shifted on the war in Afghanistan. What was, 12 months ago, "the good war" has now become, for paleoconservatives and progressives alike, a fool's errand. And the Obama Administration has thus far shown little energy for defending a policy and strategic goals (.pdf) they themselves arrived at just five months ago. I thought that once the president had settled on a policy and strategic aims, the rest of the administration would then go about executing that policy. That's the way it's supposed to work, right? Yet the policy debate seems to continue within the White House, with the Office of the Vice President apparently pushing for a much more limited approach than what was articulated in March by the president himself and following a lengthy policy review. No wonder, then, the uniformed military is getting nervous about the administration's support for their war. Either the White House has been too busy with health care, or they have failed to notice how quickly the debate has shifted under their feet (as with health care).

I'm not a professional counterinsurgency type like Abu Muqawama, but I've been wondering the same thing. The shift from "withdraw from Iraq to win in Afghanistan" to "why are we in Afghanistan?" has been rapid and profound, despite the change of command to General McChrystal and rethinking of strategy. Once again the historian in me thinks back to the British experience in the 19th century (and the Soviet in the 20th), and to Lady Butler's painting of Doctor Brydon riding, alone, into Jalalabad (Remnants of an Army):

History doesn't repeat itself, of course (though historians do repeat themselves), and the British and Soviet adventures were essentially imperial adventures while ours is — well, that seems to be the issue here. What are we doing? We ousted the Taliban. We oversaw the creation of an elected government. There is still a Taliban-based insurgency. Is our goal to help the Afghans defeat this insurgency, to defeat it ourselves, or what? I don't want to do what my generation (the Vietnam generation) tend to do too often and compare everything to Vietnam, but the problem is starting to echo arguments heard then: we may not be winning, but we can't afford to lose, because that would be a victory for the other side in a global struggle. But you don't just keep upping the ante because you don't want to fold: that's how you lose even more. You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, as the great geopolitical strategist Kenny Rogers once put it.

Or to put it the way some did in Vietnam: if we're unsure about our objective, how exactly will we know when we've won? (Or, for that matter, lost.) The Taliban aren't going to surrender on the Battleship Missouri, after all. When does it end? Or to quote General Petraeus in an entirely different (well, maybe not entirely) context: Tell me how this ends.

When Walter Cronkite died, everyone quoted Lyndon Johnson's famous remark after Tet: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." George Will is as different from Walter Cronkite as can be, but the war in Afghanistan lost George Will this week. (I can't quite picture Obama saying, "If I've lost George Will, I've lost the Republican right," but still, if he's lost George Will, who does he have left among Democrats? See Exum's comments above.) Something is happening here, and the uncertainties about the Afghan election aren't helping. We need to redefine our goals and make certain they are achievable. I haven't really bailed completely on Afghanistan yet, but like Exum I'm starting to feel lonely. Vietnam was called America's longest war, but at best it engaged US troops for 10 years. This fall we'll be eight and counting in Afghanistan.

I am also forcibly reminded of a quote by that old radical pinko peacenik pro-bugout dove, Carl von Clausewitz, who headed that notorious wimpy leftwing institution, the Prussian Kriegsakademie:

No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.

— Karl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579.

Note: "no one in his senses ought to do so."


LJ Marczak said...

I don’t have the background of either you or Exum on this topic. But a couple things trouble me about the current debate. Maybe you or another read can weigh in with some counter thoughts.

First, because expectations have not been met, questions are natural. As Andrew Exum states on his website, there are two competing strands to the debate: tactics and strategy. To come to a policy decision, we have to decide which topic we should focus on first.

The words of another musically inclined geopolitical strategist seem particularly relevant to me. “What are we fighting for?” Or in other words, what is the strategy? Once strategy is set, tactics should follow.

But in looking at strategy, I’d argue that it’s not Afghanistan per se, but how Afghanistan fits into the larger picture. It seems to me that too much of the current debate – both strategy and tactics – is focused on the “trees” of Afghanistan instead of the larger issue of the “forest” of the overall global confrontation. Thinking carefully about that larger picture may help us distinguish what is critical to achieving the central goal from what is not. To help us pick the proper battles and the proper tools.

A major starting point would be a thorough understanding of strategy of our opponents. Their goals, their methods and the real threat they pose. A careful distinction between central and peripheral enemies. Based on the analysis of AlQaeda’s “Administration of Savagery” in the July issue of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst by one of MEI’s resident scholars, Dr. Ryan, Afghanistan would seem to be an ideal battlefield of choice for AQ.

Then an analysis of our own capabilities and limitations. Based on some limited reading on my part, Colin Gray’s 2006 “Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt” ( http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=650) and Jeffrey Record’s “Beating Goliath”, Afghanistan would seem a poor choice from our perspective. What’s more disconcerting is that events seem to bear out their analyses.

Clearly, one doesn’t always get to pick and choose the battlefield. And I suppose one can argue that Afghanistan is a failure of tactics and resource allocation. But I have a nagging feeling, strategy is more to blame. What are we fighting for?

Second, even after settling strategy, there is the tactical question if there are the necessary building blocks for success.

While not every war is Vietnam, there is one parallel that strikes me: the nature of our local ally.

If the goal is not perpetual occupation, at some point a local party capable of administering the country and dealing with any residual security threat will have to stand up.

Admittedly, Afghanistan is a difficult case. It may be premature to expect that after only eight years local hands would be strong enough to assume the burden. But shouldn’t we be able at this point to at least identify credible parties that potentially could play this role? If they are absent, do we really believe we can “manufacture” them? A task that would seem to be even more difficult than nation and institution building.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

It would seem you have considerable background in the literature at least, Larry. I've mentally begun the Labor Day weekend and will refrain from responding at length right now, but perhaps others will wish to.