Belmont Club

The last syllable

Michael Yon has a long and photograph filled dispatch from Afghanistan. He describes the slog. “People like Secretary Gates and General Petraeus think we create some sort of success here, and I do, too, but only with sincere, strategic intergenerational commitment.  Ten years more will not do it.  Twenty years will not be enough.  A century is more realistic.  Knock on wood that Stanley McChrystal can pull a rabbit out of his hat during his command, and buy time for progress.”

After promising to turn Afghanistan into the centerpiece of its strategy, the Obama administration hasn’t even been able to articulate it. Central to the difficulty is that it must communicate to everyone in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan that it intends to win — in order to win. The ultimate “effect” NATO operations must have is to lastingly convince everyone, including the Taliban, that the return of al-Qaeda will not be tolerated. It’s a chicken and egg cycle in which military force is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for success. In some respects the situation in 2006 Iraq contained several of the elements the US is facing in Afghanistan today. A STRATFOR article described it:

The expectation in November 2006 was that as U.S. President George W. Bush’s strategy had been repudiated, his only option was to begin withdrawing troops. … Most important, groups in Iraq believed that the United States would be leaving. Therefore, political alliance with the United States made no sense, as U.S. guarantees would be made moot by withdrawal. … Bush’s decision to launch a surge of forces in Iraq was less a military event than a psychological one. … The issue was not whether the United States could defeat all of the insurgents and militias; that was not possible. The issue was that because the United States was not leaving, the United States was not irrelevant. If the United States was not irrelevant, then at least some American guarantees could have meaning. And that made the United States a political actor in Iraq.

Once the US established that it was going to remain a serious and potent actor in the region the factions within Iraq reconciled themselves to its presence. They understood that the Red Lines were real and became convinced that they could not be transgressed. Force had been used to defeat the enemy in his mind; and that is the only lasting kind of victory. It is often forgotten that the defeat of Germany and Japan did not involve the annihilation of their populations. It involved their acceptance of an Allied victory. STRATFOR, in discussing the options in Afghanistan, argues that the heart of the debate is whether to deal with the “natural” rulers of Afghanistan or attempt to psychologically defeat the region a la Iraq.

Obama and Gates have stated that the goal in Afghanistan is the defeat of al Qaeda and the denial of bases for the group in Afghanistan. This is a very different strategic goal than in Iraq, because this goal does not require a coalition government or a reconciliation of political elements. Rather, it requires an agreement with one entity: the Taliban. If the Taliban agree to block al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal. Therefore, the challenge in Afghanistan is using U.S. power to give the Taliban what they want — a return to power — in exchange for a settlement on the al Qaeda question.

But the problem with this approach is that it reduces the likelihood that the Taliban will honor such a settlement. If the Taliban psychologically believes they have won — which they must conclude if the the US effectively buys its way out of the battlefield by giving them the keys to Kabul after a “decent interval” — then they will feel free to renege, secure in the knowledge that Washington, having worked so hard to pull its fingers from the fire, will not soon plunge its hand in again. What Petraeus wants, according to STRATFOR, is to convince all concerned that if Washington withdraws, it will be at its pleasure; leaving no doubt that if al-Qaeda returns so will the Predators.

From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying, thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the Taliban.

But despite Petraeus’ stature, STRATFOR is in no doubt who will win the strategic debate. “In the end, there is never a debate between U.S. presidents and generals. Even MacArthur discovered that. It is becoming clear that Obama is not going to bet all in Afghanistan, and that he sees Afghanistan as not worth the fight. Petraeus is a soldier in a fight, and he wants to win. But in the end, as Clausewitz said, war is an extension of politics by other means. As such, generals tend to not get their way.”  In that view, the administration’s own priorities prohibit the kind of intergenerational, or other psychologically compelling commitment to victory that is necessary to achieve the psychological effect. One is left with slogging and hoping that something will turn up. “Knock on wood that Stanley McChrystal can pull a rabbit out of his hat during his command, and buy time for progress.”

Yet it is still interesting to examine the position of each from their merit. After all, Obama may be right about the impossibility of victory. For one thing, the real locus of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, which is largely out of Petraeus’ reach. The second rationale for appeasement is history. The Pashtun may simply be incapable of being convinced of defeat. Third, the morale of NATO is bound to flag. It is almost as if they were simply going through a due diligence attempt at victory without any real conviction. Would it not be better to git while the going’s good instead of being the last force out of Afghanistan, if the NATO partners begin to peel off?  The real weakness of what STRATFOR thinks is Obama’s plan is simple: if al-Qaeda returns after a NATO withdrawal then America simply cannot ignore it. Given a secure base al-Qaeda will be back on the attack again, something it has not been able to achieve on a large scale since September 11; and whether it will or nill, everything will go right back to where it started. You cannot leave the field to the enemy yet hope to enjoy the fruits of victory, simply because you ain’t got it. Between these dilemmas the circle must be squared.

But who is thinking about it? With the political focus, both in the US and in Europe, decidedly on the economy and domestic politics, Afghan strategy may simply drift. It was said that Britain acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness. Washington sometimes conducts international policy and warfare in that condition.


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