In the last week, Steve Walt, George Will and Charles Hagel have all come out to say that Afghanistan is a losing effort and that we should get out or retrench in one way or the other.
Isn’t this jumping the gun a bit? Obama has only been in there 8 months, and McChrystal for less than 2. I know we all think it could become like Vietnam or the Red Army when they were in Afghanistan 25 years ago. But not necessarily. Presumably US planners can read history and learn from previous mistakes. Heavy and indiscriminate use of firepower was the big civil relations problems faced by both the US in Vietnam and the USSR in Afghanistan. But we seem to have learned not to do that (although the Russians haven’t – look at Chechnya). Predators and local airstrikes, for all their errors, are not like Arclight in South Vietnam or, worse, the Soviet scorched earth policy in Afghanistan.
It is true that large bureaucracies learn slowly, and the the US Army seems particularly insistent on fighting war in only one way. However, the Army did learn counterinsurgency after 4 years in Iraq, and it did, sort of, turn things around there.
I am also not so sure that if we leave AfPak, it wouldn’t cause so much trouble that we’d have to go back in again later. Walt is correct that the ‘safe haven for al Qaeda’ argument for staying in South Asia is weak, but it does hold some water, and there are other reasons for staying.
1. Without a US commitment, Afghanistan will melt-down, and that will increase the chances of the same thing happening in Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and a lot more people, conventional weapons, and jihadis.
2. Without the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence will almost certainly go back to its old tricks there. It will make trouble so that Pakistan can semi-control Afghanistan and gain greater ‘strategic depth’ against India. (This was the Pakistani strategy before 9/11.)
3. India will flip out if we cut out of South Asia. It will certainly feel less secure, and so be more likely to build more nukes, not compromise on Kashmir, and strike a much harder line on Pakistan and terrorism. Do we really want India to feel isolated and hence pressed to use military force next time they are targeted by terrorists with Pakistani connections? India is an emerging US ally, and if we leave South Asia just like that, we will lose them.
4. If we can get some kind of stable government in Afghanistan and more or less defeat/repress the Taliban, we might then be able to interrupt the huge flow of opium out Afghanistan. Even if you believe in light drug liberalization (I do), it is hard to be comfortable with legalizing opium, which is the base of heroin.
5. Just like in Vietnam, US credibility is at stake. The biggest problem we have in counterinsurgency is that the Afghan locals don’t think we’ll stay, so they won’t rat out the Taliban. If we bail, the Afghans will never trust us again, and we’ll have trouble convincing other similar populations (Muslim, tribalized) should we have to fight somewhere else (like Somalia or Yemen). So yes, we may have to give up later, but let’s at least give it a try before we burn our bridges so badly in South Asia. It will be a lot harder to fight there later if we give up now.
I realize that saying we have to fight for credibility can be a black hole. If you have to defend every domino to defend anyone of them, then you have to fight everywhere. That’s what happened in the Cold War and lead to Vietnam. But we are nowhere near that point in the GWoT. The Cold War pulled us all over the world, but the GWoT is mostly limited to the Middle East and South Asia. We have only just begun to divert resources to Afghanistan from Iraq. As the cost of the latter goes down and the former goes up, hopefully we won’t have to pay any new costs. Yes, I realize the GWoT has already been a budget-breaker, but our Afghanistan venture will likely be less expensive than Iraq. Our costs should begin to decline.
In short, there are costs to giving up in Afghanistan, and benefits if we win. In Vietnam, we learned after Tet, that the benefits of victory no longer outweighed the costs of the effort. In other words, by 1969 it was cheaper to lose in Vietnam. But we are not near that point in Afghanistan yet. Bush basically ignored the place as Iraq took over his presidency. Obama has only just begun the effort that should have taken place in 2002. So let’s give him and McChrystal a chance. Deployments and wars are not forever. If the costs balloon, and benefits recede and become ever more ethereal (as happened in Vietnam), we can always leave. This is not the end of the discussion. But for right now, let’s give Obama a chance, as we gave W his hail mary pass with the surge.
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