24 June 2010

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?

As much as I respected Gen. McChrystal, I had no problem with President Obama removing him from command and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. The fact that a Rolling Stone columnist managed to gain access to such high-level sources raises significant questions about whether McChrystal had a tight enough grip on the operation.

Now, Petraeus will take over. He was the undisputed star of Woodward's "The War Within," detailing the Bush administration's deliberate effort to re-tool their efforts in the Iraq War, and, in the face of criticism from both sides of the aisle, pursue a counterinsurgency strategy that has put the United States on the precipice of victory.

In Afghanistan, I have two big concerns moving forward.

First, Petraeus' rightfully vaunted counterinsurgency strategy worked like a dream in Iraq. But can it work in Afghanistan? In light of McChrystal's exit, this is a very important discussion to have. While I supported the troop surge in both countries, and give the president credit for standing up to his anti-war base, there are legitimate criticisms -- from rock-ribbed conservatives like George Will and thoughtful middle-of-the-roaders like Andrew Sullivan -- as to whether Petraeus' feat in Iraq can be duplicated in Afghanistan. Iraq is much more modern, has significant urban areas where most of the population is centered (e.g., Baghdad and Tikrit) and (with the exception of the Kurds in northwest Iraq) does not have a history of tribal leadership, but rather of strong central governance. In Iraq, American soldiers -- for better or for worse -- helped rebuild the country's declining infrastructure -- roads, schools, hospitals, etc. Baghdad is now a thriving center of commerce, thanks in large part to the nation-building done by the U.S. military.

Afghanistan is much the opposite. There is little infrastructure even in place. Kabul and Kandahar are modestly sized cities, but not urban. Much of the Afghani population lives outside of the major cities, and for centuries -- perhaps millennia -- warlords, drug kingpins and various local tribal leaders have reigned supreme. Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government -- in fact, much the opposite. While Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, the newly minted Iraqi officials circa 2004 had a governmental blueprint -- police, personnel, a warchest, regulations, procedures, etc. The largest standing army Afghanistan has ever had is no larger than 90,000 troops. And unlike Iraq -- where the battles were fought in the city streets -- the battles in Afghanistan against al Qaeda are fought in the must rugged areas of the world.

The objective, ultimately, is to transfer responsibility to the Afghani military and police forces such that it is their job to keep al Qaeda at bay. Can this be done? I think we all agree that the United States can't be in Afghanistan acting as the police force, and continue to sustain casualties, for another 10 or 15 years. At some point, the U.S. will be viewed as an occupier, muddling through nation building exercises in a country that has really never had such a blueprint to work from. This isn't to criticize the military leadership, but rather point out the vast differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

The goal must be realized somehow. If the Taliban regains power, a second 9/11 is not only possible, but likely. I'm just not sure this objective is even realistic. What bothers me is that we have been in Afghanistan since October 2001, and today in June 2010, no one is under the delusion that the Afghan government is ready to take over security responsibilities from U.S. forces. In light of the president's curious target date of October 2011 for a phased withdrawal of troops, isn't it a bit unrealistic to expect the Afghan government to do in 18 months what it hasn't been able to do for 8 1/2 years?

And conservatives, please spare me the "cut and run" rhetoric of Sarah Palin. This was relevant in Iraq, but for the reasons listed above, Afghanistan is an entirely different animal.

Whether this war is actually winnable in a reasonable timeframe -- keeping in mind mounting casualties, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, issues between Karzai and the U.S., and the looming threat of Iran -- is a legitimate question.

My position is that yes, the war is winnable, but we need a more solid partner than Karzai, who is laughably corrupt and quite possibly mentally unstable. If he is unable to lead his country toward a fully functional Afghan security force, then the U.S. needs to displace him with someone who can. I have a complete lack of confidence in Karzai's willingness and abilities to deal with the pro-Taliban forces both in his own government and in his country's more remote regions where the enemy still lurks. I personally don't care that Karzai was democratically elected -- in fact, virtually the entire world believes there was voter fraud that took place, so whether he is actually a legitimate leader or just a stooge is debatable -- American interests are at a breaking point in Afghanistan, and if Karzai can't reach the bar, he must be displaced -- democracy be damned (see a prior post on this topic).

Secondly, the Afghanistan problem causes me to lose even more confidence in President Obama. On Hardball last night, Howard Fineman described the chain of command in the Obama administration as "a floating craps game." While the national security adviser has traditionally been the link between the generals in the field, the Department of Defense leadership and the president, Jim Jones is widely believed to be absent from the loop. This is a shame, as Jones is a highly decorated career military man who was a brilliant pick for NSA in the first place. The fact that he doesn't have Obama's ear is very discouraging. Who is dictating policy? Is it Hillary Clinton at State? Is it Bob Gates at Defense? Or is it Joe Biden? Reportedly, Biden is in favor of an accelerated withdrawal, while Clinton and Gates (and presumably Jones) favor a beefed up counterinsurgency campaign. Biden has reportedly been marginalized in Cabinet meetings, but the bottom line is that even many insiders aren't quite sure who is ultimately calling the shots.

Given that the man at the top -- Obama -- has next to zero foreign policy experience, this is even more alarming.

What Fineman and Chris Matthews spoke of last night was a lack of some sort of chain of command, where the leaders on the ground in Afghanistan know they can go for policy decisions and the like. As Matthews astutely noted, the administration's tepid response to the oil spill in the gulf can be compared to the McChrystal situation (where the commanding general on the ground reportedly called the NSA chief a "clown") -- and a conclusion can reasonably be drawn that no one knows who's in charge.

Say what you will about President Bush, but has a chain of command ever been more clear?

Furthermore, isn't it bothersome that the president mandated a troop surge, but wants to begin withdrawing troops within 18 months?

This is bothersome to me as we enter perhaps the most critical period of the war in Afghanistan. Whether he likes it or not, Afghanistan might be the most crucial issue of Barack Obama's presidency. Split-the-baby decisions do not good leaders make. Is the president content to find nuanced (read: confusing) positions on issues of enormous import (much as he did with the terrible healthcare bill where he expanded Medicaid rolls and imposed regulations on insurance companies, but jettisoned the public option, managing to piss off everyone) just to please?

Obama in this way is very much like Bush, I believe -- there is a danger in having a president walk into the Oval Office knowing almost next to nothing about foreign policy. Bush was susceptible to the neocon forces in his administration -- Cheney and Wolfowitz, et al. -- but Obama is a rudderless blank slate who doesn't appear to be fully committed to this surge. In fact, the only thing he appears truly committed to is his professorial method of so-called leadership.

He needs to take charge. Furthermore, he needs to demonstrate to Karzai that American interests will not be compromised by a timeline.

To this point, the president's atrocious style of leadership is wearing thin, and he needs to decide whether the country will indeed be worse off in 2012 because of it.

This is why you don't elect an inexperienced, first-term, back-benching liberal senator with no significant legislative accomplishments president of the United States.

Because he doesn't know how to lead.

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