Monday, September 21, 2009

A Rescue, Not An Occupation

A friend who knows a lot more about Afghanistan than I do took umbrage at my call for a reduction of U.S. ground forces. I asked him if using counter-terrorism (CT) techniques to monitor, deter, attack, and eliminate active anti-U.S. terrorists in Afghanistan wouldn't be better than an open-ended commitment of ground forces. His reply:
In response to your query, look at the evidence from across the border in the tribal areas. How much success have we had there, including your conditionals, in light of the fact that this is a non-permissive environment? Now look at the Afghan side, a permissive environment, and measure the current presence of al-Qaeda. Then ask yourself how permissive that environment will be when we signal our intent to absquatulate? It will be an abandonment of a rescue, not an abandonment of an occupation, as made very clear by the only quote of a key Afghan in the [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal report:

I do not underestimate the enormous challenges in executing this new strategy; however, we have a key advantage: the majority of Afghans do not want a return of the Taliban. During consultations with Afghan Defense Minister Wardak, I found some of his writings insightful:

"Victory is within our grasp -- provided that we recommit ourselves based on lessons learned and provided that we fulfill the requirements needed to make success inevitable... I reject the myth advanced in the media that Afghanistan is a 'graveyard of empires' and that the U.S. and NATO effort is destined to fail. Afghans have never seen you as occupiers, even though this has been the major focus of the enemy's propaganda campaign. Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild."

The above quote should be seen as debunking the tired conservative canard that manifests itself under isolationist cloak in every debate I've witnessed: They've been fighting for thousands of years! This was said of the encounters in the Middle East, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc. It is always historically false (they've usually been at peace for thousands of years, punctuated by violence caused by dynamics people are too reluctant to address). The current manifestation is the "graveyard of empires" construct. Even a cursory look at U.S. policy toward Afghanistan reveals -- and this is one of the things we tried to get right -- an attempt to partner, not occupy.

Do you believe that Afghans -- or any self-preserving people -- would continue to work with us if we break faith? And how does extending the insecurity of the tribal areas by several multiples of safe-haven support the argument that a CT strategy works?

I challenge the defeatism of the "open-ended" construction. McChrystal and others since the beginning have made clear that building Afghan security forces (ANA and ANP) is the ticket out. And the author of the poorly named Graveyard of Empires, RAND's Seth Jones, who is quite objective, clearly parses how we succeeded in building the ANA when we focused on it (and how we let that slip in the latter Bush years). The Afghans know how to fight and take very well to our training. We've built an army out of scratch (to approximately 90,000) in a few years of sustained commitment. Doubling that commitment, as Obama and McChrystal recognize is necessary, is the way to ensure that the Afghans will take responsibility for the security we are now leading. (Want to make any ARVN analogies?)

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