Afghanistan as the next Iraq

>> Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What is going on in Afghanistan has been slowly generating attention. As the debate over the surge and immediate withdrawal has declined, people have noticed that Afghanistan is not going so well for us right now. Afghanistan has always been the foil to the Iraq war. Where Iraq was illegitimate and unnecessary, Afghanistan was just and required for American safety. Iraq has been a dismal failure on almost every front but Afghanistan was being judged a success. Now as the gains that were maid in Afghanistan have apparently slipped into the either questions are arising over whether or not America and the West should stay in Afghanistan. Perhaps surprisingly the answer is becoming a tentative no.

Violence in Afghanistan has been increasing over the last several years as the Taliban has regained strength and American interest and resources have been diverted to Iraq. As of Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, at least 496 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. Last year there was a total of 401 deaths. The NGO’s operating in the area report a 50% increase in terrorist attacks this year extending into areas that where once considered safe. ACBAR, a group that represents 64 international aid groups with projects inside the warring country, including Oxfam, Mercy Corps and Save the Children, as well as 36 Afghan charities issued a report that states,

"So far this year, the number of insurgent attacks, bombings and other violent incidents is up by approximately 50 per cent on the same period last year. The number of insurgent attacks for each of the months of May (463), June (569) and July is greater than the number of such attacks in any other month since the end of major hostilities following the international intervention in 2001."

The increase in violence has prompted increase scrutiny of the situation. Kevin Drum at highlighted to pieces on the situation in Afghanistan. First is Rory Stewart, who runs an NGO in Kabul called the Turquoise Mountain, writing in Time, second is Robert Kaplan, writing in the Atlantic. The conclusion reached by all three writers is that we do not want to perform massive increases in troop deployments in Afghanistan. A “surge” for Afghanistan is not likely to be productive for numerous reasons they highlight.

the West should not increase troop numbers. In time, NATO allies, such as Germany and Holland, will probably want to draw down their numbers, and they should be allowed to do so. We face pressing challenges elsewhere. If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan; if we are worried about regional stability, then Egypt, Iran or even Lebanon is more important; if we are worried about poverty, Africa is more important. A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining. The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.

In the midst of all this, both Bush and Barack Obama talk simplistically about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. The India-Pakistan rivalry is just one of several political problems in the region that negate the benefit of more troops. As in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are in danger of conceiving of war in narrow military terms alone, and thus getting the politics wrong.

For its part, the Pentagon is attempting to tamp down on fears that the situation is deteriorating

But Morrell cast media reports of Afghan violence as "overwriting" that gave the false impression that "the sky is falling."

"I don't think that the (defense) secretary (Robert Gates) believes that is the case,"..."That is the war which we have focused on. That is the war we are now winning," Morrell said.

But he declined to make the same positive assessment for Afghanistan.

"The only thing I have heard about a judgment about whether we are winning or losing in Afghanistan is that we are not losing there," Morrell said.

With the exception of the Pentagon every one seems to think that Afghanistan is in trouble. The next question is what to do about it. The proposed solutions coming from the candidates highlight one of the problems in dealing with Afghanistan. Barack Obama has talked about increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. He was asked about this recently and here is what he said,

Q: Afghanistan is something you've spoken a lot about...Take us to the next level, why, as you've said, and how, we need to put more U.S. forces into Afghanistan. To the Soviets it became a quagmire. How do you avoid that? How do you measure success? If you could give us a little more detail about what you think you'd like to do.

A: I'm not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy. That's the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops. I also think that we need to deal with the situation in Pakistan and the fact that terrorists are able to operate with relative freedom of movement there right now.

The Obama position on Afghanistan is one of the positions that is inconsistent with many experts on the situation. Hearing that Obama is picturing a moderate goal for Afghanistan is slightly heartening. Obama is still advocating addition troops for the country, one of the unpopular ideas. His plan calls for up to two additional brigades to be moved into the country. Juan Cole has a detailed piece on Obama’s rhetoric on Afghanistan and what he thinks the US needs to do, get out.

The major critique I have is that Obama keeps talking about intensifying the search and destroy missions being carried out by US troops in the Pushtun areas of southern Afghanistan. As we should have learned from Vietnam, search and destroy missions only alienate the local population and drive it into the arms of the insurgency.


I don't know whether Senator Obama really wants to try to militarily occupy Afghanistan even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s first. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.


Afghan tribes are fractious. They feud. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.

As a political tool, Afghanistan has been very useful. McCain cannot accuse Obama of being an appeaser or afraid to use the military because of his Iraq position without Obama using a potential refocus on Afghanistan to bludgeon him. Afghanistan still enjoys support among the population at large for several reasons one of which is their general ignorance of what goes on there. As Cole points out, though using Afghanistan in this way puts Obama into a very tight position where he will have to follow through on his promise of turning Afghanistan around. The conditions on the ground there seem to make that a long shot, at least through a military lens.
As early as last June there began to appear questions about our future in Afghanistan. For example an article in the Hill entitled Out-of-Afghanistan rumblings on the Hill,

A few congressional Democrats go so far as suggesting that the Pentagon should pull out of Afghanistan now, while others say that troop withdrawal will be addressed after the military is out of Iraq.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior defense authorizer, wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan immediately, calling operations there “futile” in trying to effect political change in a country with a tangled history.

The problem will come for a President Obama and Congressional Democrats that what it takes to do the job in Afghanistan is more than they, or the American people, want to commit. I recently wrote a diary on the America’s relationship with nation building. Our only success stories are situations were we remained in country for multiple decades to help establish a state. Afghanistan presents a situation that would definitely require the United States to occupy the country for multiple decades.

Many authors have noted that the Taliban completely eradicated the intelligentsia of Afghanistan to the point where education is being done by those barely or unqualified. The people needed to run the government and the institutions are just not available in the numbers required. In addition to the shortage of the qualified, there is a real issue with corruption in the country. The central government extends around Kabul and not much farther. The state is actively protecting the drug industry. They do this for several reasons the best explanation of the Afghan drug problem can be found in a report by Barnett R. Rubin. Rubin posts frequently on and is very good reading for those interested in learning about Afghanistan. The central government lacks the ability to root out the corruption.

Actually Sabit did try to arrest a corrupt official one time, General Din Muhammad Jurat, one of the most powerful Northern Alliance commanders in the Ministry of the Interior. The upshot was that Jurat detained Sabit and disarmed and beat his men. This was not in a remote area on the Pakistan border but less than an hour's drive north of Kabul in an area considered to be under "government" control. What does that mean? It means that Jurat and people like him are the government. There is no state that operates independently of power holders like Jurat. The project is to build such a state, not assume its existence and use it based on that false assumption.

The absence of a state after six years of sacrifice is not a good starting point. Our military actions in Afghanistan are not increasing our popularity. This is a big negative when our military is seen as propping up the government it only adds to the bad feelings much of the population now feels about the Karzai government.

It appears that what we are going to be left with is a President who has committed us to increasing troop strength to cause where the experts recognize that troops are not the answer. In addition, when Iraq is over I doubt the American people are going to be happy about the casualty rates in Afghanistan and very reluctant to endure a prolonged presence. Just as support for the withdrawal from Iraq was a slowly building force the call for a reduced military commitment to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is shaping up to be another failure for American regime change abroad.

I wrote this to highlight the subtle building of the calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it is at odds with the policy positions of our candidate Barack Obama. It will be an interesting political situation that develops assuming that the calls for the US to get out of Afghanistan continue to build. Obama has never been hesitant to say that he does not oppose wars, only dumb wars. It looks like Afghanistan might be becoming one of those dumb wars.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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