Belmont Club

The battle for Pakistan

The NYT summarizes the testmony of General Petraeus and Michele Flournoy of the DOD.

WASHINGTON — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander for Iraq and Afghanistan, warned a Senate panel on Wednesday that militant extremists in Pakistan “could literally take down their state” if left unchallenged, as he and two other top officials presented a grim picture of growing dangers in the region. …

Under sharp questioning from Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, Ms. Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, acknowledged the administration’s concerns about a wing of the ISI, which American intelligence officials say is providing money and military assistance to the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.

“I think ISI is a — or parts of ISI — are certainly a problem to be dealt with,” Ms. Flournoy said. …

“How does this end?” asked Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, echoing comments that General Petraeus once made when he was the commander in Iraq.

Ms. Flournoy responded that “a key point of defining success is when both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have both the capability and the will to deal with the remaining threat themselves.”

General Petraeus said that he would “echo” Ms. Flournoy and that “the task will be for them to shoulder the responsibilities of their own security.”

American involvement in a foreign political and military struggle creates effects in two directions. On the one hand it empowers the the side which it assists with training, financial aid, intelligence support and a variety of force multipliers, up to an including direct military action. On the other hand, US presence can also pull in geopolitical enemies, serve as a rallying point to unite nationalist forces and mobilize the not-inconsiderable anti-American forces of the Left.  American involvement is an accelerant of violence. It is also the primary force against the same violence.  Effects in the positive direction flow directly from the application of real physical resources. The negative effects largely stem from the symbolism of American involvement. Since downsides to American involvement are a “fixed” cost, the net effect of US intervention is a function of how many real resources are committed to the fight. A large symbolic American commitment without a correspondingly substantial effort of force is the worst of all possible worlds. If the US goes into this fight, it should make up its mind to see it through. In this case, Napoleon’s advice still rings true. “If you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna.”

John McCain’s questioning of Flournoy subsequently touched on the question of whether, having talked the talk, there was the will in Washington to walk the walk. McCain seemed to believe that one indicator of seriousness were the troop levels the administration was prepared to agree to.

Mr. McCain, an early proponent of the buildup of American forces in Iraq, also questioned whether the United States now had enough troops in Afghanistan. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, has asked for 30,000 more American troops, and Mr. Obama has so far committed about 21,000 of those. The president will make a decision this fall on whether 10,000 or so more troops will be sent.

“I think it would be far, far better to announce that we will have the additional 10,000 troops dispatched and they will clearly be needed,” Mr. McCain told Ms. Flournoy. He added: “It’s a big country. We know that was a vital element to our success in Iraq. To dribble out these decisions, I think, can create an impression of incrementalism.”

Ms. Flournoy did not react immediately to Mr. McCain’s comment, but much later in the hearing she said that “I would never have used the phrase incrementalism” to describe what she called a “very strong commitment” of American troops that are to increase to 68,000 from 38,000 by the end of this year.

However that may be, the troop strength numbers in this theater also operate in two directions. Given that the administration has ruled out using American troops in Pakistan, the bigger the force on the ground the more effective it will be on the Afghan side of  Pashtunistan but the more logistically vulnerable it will be to setbacks on the Pakistani side of Pashtunistan. Every man more in Afghanistan is another man that needs to be supplied, largely through Pakistan. Perhaps the DOD is staging its buildup to see how much weight the current logistical arrangements can support before pressing down too hard on the boards. More troops mean more combat power in Afghanistan. It also means more men out on a limb if, as General Petraeus said, militant extremists “literally take down their state”. The administration should now draw breath before plunging into the tunnel. Nobody knows how far down this one goes.