It’s kind of an either/or thing, Andrew

by Joshua Foust on 8/17/2009 · 31 comments

Andrew Exum has finally posted his own thoughts after running a weeklong essay contest to see if we have a strategy in Afghanistan or not. The result is, let us say, incomplete. To his great credit, he is explicit that his thoughts on the matter are incomplete, a courtesy I wish the other certainty-filled Big Thinkers would show us when they write about how Afghanistan is the most mattering war ever or worthless beyond compare. But even Exum’s incomplete thoughts have a curious contradiction I have yet to work through myself. It seems based on two primary assertions:

1) Afghanistan has “clear interests” to American national security interests (e.g. al Qaeda, opium, the Taliban, transnational terrorism) and those interests are “worth protecting”; and

2) If the war does not improve in 12-18 months, we should scale back our efforts and prepare to withdraw.

I don’t know how he can square those two assertions, aside from saying “it’s politics.” That may be true, but this really is an either/or thing—it is literally life and death. If America has interests in Afghanistan that are worth protecting with our lives and theirs (what are they, Andrew? You never get around to articulating them), then a 12-18 month timeframe should be immaterial.

Either these interests are worth protecting, so we channel all the resources, time, personnel, and attention… or they are not, in which case we have no reason to risk American and Afghan lives for an empty cause. You can’t really say we have these interests worth killing and dying for, but only for the next year or so. I don’t think interests work like that.

Something else also bothers me:

[If change is not evident by Christmas 2010, President Obama, then direct the Department of Defense to shift its strategy in conjuntion with that of the NATO alliance. But until then, allow your new commander — the guy you put in charge because you fired the other guy and after you promised to properly resource the war on the campaign trail — to develop a plan for winning and to execute that plan.]

Again, two points need to be raised in response:

1) That’s a lot like Dave Dilegge’s bizarre trust-us-we’re-the-experts post (a sentiment he later walked back later in the day), and speaks to a certain inviolability of the generalship that doesn’t square with the apparently new focus on media friendliness in Afghanistan’s four star generals; and

2) Part of the subtext of today’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran story is that the Obama foreign policy team has rebuked NATO involvement in favor of “the A-Team” (itself a curious reference to a type of SOF unit) taking over the war. By Exum’s logic, we’re in charge until we’re bored or bloodied, then it’s back to being NATO’s war again.

It’s also a bit cheeky to say Obama promised to resource the war properly, then refused to do so for an unfavored general, and now kind of does so for a Petraeus-approved one (and even then, has issued instructions to this new Petraeus-approved general not to request more troops).

I guess what I’m getting at in this conceptual mess of a post is that the war is a terribly muddy place, intellectually and even morally, and it’s really damned tough to figure it all out. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t torn between my earnest belief that we do have vital interests there and my inability, like Exum, to really articulate what they are in a logical and straightforward manner.

Or maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. Any thoughts?

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Schwartz August 18, 2009 at 6:44 am

Hi Josh, I think you raise good points about the inchoate logic of these various individuals. Yet, as I see it, the problem is precisely one of expertise — the lack of it on academia’s side, and the lack of any desire to listen to it were it to exist on politics’ side.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the chief problem of these experts is their lack of Afghanistan or COIN specialization, right? And not to beat a dead horse (or buzkashi, as the case may be), but it seems to me that the Afghan campaign is in danger of becoming Vietnamized (yes, I said it!), i.e., the politicization of strategy rather than a pragmatic and experience-based approach.

Your thoughts?

Joshua Foust August 18, 2009 at 6:48 am

Well, I don’t think Andrew Exum can be accused of lacking expertise in Counterinsurgency. In fact, that’s why he’s so prominent, because I think he is one of the more well-known experts on Counterinsurgency.

Exum’s point, which as I said above he deserves a lot of credit for saying, is that he doesn’t normally focus on the bigger strategic questions. That’s why I think that post of his wasn’t as complete as his more tactical analyses of places like Lebanon.

Dafydd August 18, 2009 at 8:01 am

I think the problem is the west in general and the US in particular has an interest in disrupting Al Qaeda.

That Al Qaeda happened to be associated with Afghanistan in coincidental.

There is no specifically Afghan part to this interest. It just so happened that that is where they were.

If they all now move to Somalia, what interest would the US have in Afghanistan?

Schwartz August 18, 2009 at 11:00 am

@ Josh: Point taken. The amateur bows.

@ Dafydd: Yes, al-Qaeda in particular, and the Taliban by extension, is the critical, if implicit, national interest. Heroin has obviously moved way up the priorities, as well, especially considering its connection to the former.

Yet, the war in Afghanistan has taken on an enormous state-building aspect. This, probably more than anything else, is what’s causing the confusion among analysts. Meanwhile, there is there are competing domestic interests back in the USA that seem to be politicizing the overall situation. It’s a crisis of political epistemology…

David M August 18, 2009 at 9:43 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/18/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

fnord August 18, 2009 at 10:28 am

Im not sure I see the disconnect. There is a difference between seeing interests worth protecting, doing a calculus on already invested resources and saying that it is cost efficient to try for another 12-24 months and try to see if it works, and seeing Af/Pak as existential threat. Since the ball has already been set in motion by Gates and Petraeus with McChrystal as team-commander, why not let the project commence? Leaving behind a Afghanistan *not* in the middle of an allout civil war seems like a major win at this point, no?

Great indirect sarcasm with the “the OTHER certainty-filled Big Thinkers” finesse, btw.

Hang on a Sec August 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

Josh — I don’t follow your argument that it is an either/or. Some interests are absolute, but most are relative to the price required to secure them — which is not known. We have an interest in keeping Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven, but it probably isn’t so vital that it would be worth it bankrupting the country or tens of thousands of KIAs (as in the Soviet experience).

So what are we willing to pay to secure our interests in Afghanistan, and can we achieve success at that price? If not, what’s the next best alternative that is within our means?

So the 12-18 months is required to clarify the price of securing or interests. The way I read Exum, he advocates giving McChrystal the 12-18 months to implement COIN, at which point we should have a better idea of whether we can realistically secure our interests in Afghanistan at a price we are willing to pay. If it seems at the end of that period that we cannot, then we need to go to plan B.

Abu Muqawama August 18, 2009 at 11:21 am

Hey, Josh: A good question — to which I would respond by saying that I do not see a contradiction. We the United States (and our allies) have interests *everywhere.* Not all are created equal, and few of them are worth an unlimited supply of our resources (blood and treasure). So it’s not just a political calculation. It’s a matter of determining how much Afghanistan is worth to us. I do not have the answer there, but I will say that I’ll be a lot more sympathetic to critiques of the war in 18 months time — if there is no positive movement — than I am now.



Abu Muqawama August 18, 2009 at 11:22 am

What “Hang on a Sec” said.

We the United States (and our allies) have interests *everywhere.* Not all are created equal, and few of them are worth an unlimited supply of our resources (blood and treasure). So it’s not just a political calculation. It’s a matter of determining how much Afghanistan is worth to us. I do not have the answer there, but I will say that I’ll be a lot more sympathetic to critiques of the war in 18 months time — if there is no positive movement — than I am now.



Joshua Foust August 18, 2009 at 11:26 am

Can’t argue with that, I suppose. How would you weight our many interests then? That’s the discussion I’d REALLY like to see, but it seems like we’re all still stuck on talking first principles.

Helena Cobban August 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Andrew, your comment has two notable aspects. First, your, We the United States (and our allies) have interests *everywhere.* is notable for its sheer, unadulterated chutzpah.

The US has interests everywhere? Oh, give us a break.

Second, you seem to be indicating that, though we don’t know “how much Afghanistan is worth to us”, you think another 18 months of strongly increased US war effort might make the answer clearer to you… So it’s kind of a “reconnaissance by fire” approach that you’re advocating. And that, in someone else’s country.

It strikes me as deeply immoral (not to mention arrogant) to argue that for you to reach cognitive clarity those other people’s country and society have to continue to be devastated by war, additional scores of US soldiers have to be killed, and all that money poured down the sink.

There is a lot of merit in the traditional questions that “Just war” thinkers ask. I write this as a Quaker, whose tradition goes back of course to before that deformation in Christian thinking that was introduced by Augustine in the form of ‘Just War’ doctrine. But the JW criteria have the real merit of forcing a leader to ask– preferably before going to war– the following key questions, among others:

1. Are the chances of success, objectively assessed, pretty darn’ large?

2. Is there no way other than warfare in which the desired goals can be met?

The JW criteria are based on the fundamental and quite correct assumption that war is always both damaging to human persons, and uncertain (“foggy”). That’s why Augustine said the JW questions should be asked before launching the war. But they can also be asked at any other point along the way. (They also end up looking a little like the Powell Doctrine… )

It strikes me now is a good time not just to ask them but also to insist on answers. And not, that is, undertake 18 months of reconnaissance by fire in an attempt to get them answered.

Fwiw, I think the answers are: Qu.1: No… Qu.2: No (i.e., there are ways to secure our legitimate interests, other than war.)

woot August 19, 2009 at 2:38 pm

The problem I have with this type of argument is that there’s a strong implication (to me at least) that if the United States pulls out everything will just be fine and dandy – as if there won’t still be a war going on when we leave. In reality the killing will continue and may even escalate if we leave. It’s one thing to argue that Afghanistan isn’t worth it in terms of US interests (however narrowly or expansively defined) and money and lives or that we can’t achieve our goals through war or combat. It’s quite another to presume that our presence there is the only problem and that by leaving Afghanistan will somehow be fixed. I know this isn’t explicitly stated in many arguments of this type, but I can’t help but thinking that this is the logical conclusion that’s left unstated by them.

And I’d like to see a concrete idea as to how we can secure our legitimate interests other than through war. I’m hard-pressed to say that negotiations with the Taliban writ large (as opposed to peeling away people fighting for money or other non-ideological reasons) would secure our interests. Letting the Afghans work out the problems on their own doesn’t resolve the basic underlying conflict for power in the country that’s at the heart of fighting.

What Exum and Froust and other commenters are saying is that *right now* they assess the chances of success – call it objectively if you will, but no one here is omniscient – as being large enough to sustain a commitment of U.S. troops to combat for a limited period of time, during which their assessment may change positively or negatively. They’ve also obviously concluded that the U.S. can’t get around engaging in combat in some fashion in order for its desired goals to be met.

Of course it’s grossly immoral to send soldiers to their deaths and wind up killing people to determine the prospects for success in Afghanistan. But it’s just the same with a pacifist strategy – people are likely to get killed while we find out whether or not it can be successful. So it’s simply equally immoral to gain clarity as to whether or not a pacifist approach would work, unless you think and can make a persuasive case that fewer people would be killed as a result. You can’t get around the information discovery question, and calling people arrogant for explaining their views forthrightly without providing even a bare-bones explanation for your reasoning as to why you don’t think it the chances of success for the current approach are sufficiently high or what other non-combat methods could achieve the United States’ strategic goals. Hell, a simple link to the interview British journalist Johann Hari conducted with Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya would have sufficed. I’m extremely sympathetic to her critique but I have many of the same doubts about it as I do about the United States’ current strategy.

Say what you want about Exum’s original post and subsequent comments, but it at least attempts to provide a rationale for why he considers Afghanistan to be worth the cost in lives and resources and shows he’s open to substantive criticism. Hurling epithets at him isn’t going to change his or anyone else’s minds.

Gulliver August 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Josh — Others have gotten there already, but I’m going to echo what Ex said: a maxim of strategic planning is that objectives must be matched with resources, which is to say that strategy is about prioritization. We can talk all we want about “vital national interests,” and some really are essential: security of the global commons, freedom of access for commerce, defense of the homeland from attack, whatever else you want to choose. But it’s meaningless to say that something is either A) an interest that requires unconstrained application of resources until it is secured/achieved or B) not an interest, and thus not worthy of any resource commitment.

Another trite little saying among planners is that if you have more than a couple of priorities, you don’t have any at all. But if you define your interests as only the things you’ll fight to the death (or the poor-house) for, then you’ll either do a lot of fighting to the death or you won’t have many interests.

MA August 21, 2009 at 4:20 am

“And I’d like to see a concrete idea as to how we can secure our legitimate interests other than through war.”

How about defining the “legitimate interests” ?

Abu Muqawama August 21, 2009 at 9:49 am


I have a great amount of respect for your perspective and have enjoyed your writings on Lebanon through the years. I think you and I might differ with respect to our perspectives on the utility of force, but that is a conversation I would be happy to have — just not in the comments section of a blog.



FDChief August 22, 2009 at 10:47 am

I guess my question would be: why does the only military option we seem to be considering is 1) ramping up the conventional Western presence and doing a damn-damn on the Afghans for a year to a year and a half, and 2) if that doesn’t work, grabbing a hat?

ISTM that the only real long-term success against the local factions “we” (i.e. the U.S. and Western Europe) don’t like is the same way central Asian rulers have done this since Baibur: find a local proxy or proxies, arm and train them and turn them loose.

This would seem to satisfy both criteria. We’d be reducing the Western military footprint that has no real option other than to produce lots of wastage of locals that will, in turn, fuel the hatred and resistance to Western militaries. And we’d be allied with people whose endex stretches waaaay past 470 days…who, in fact, live in the place and have an actual, y’know, stake in what happens to it. And if we can’t find anyone who wants to ally with us – if the ANA is still ate up after two, three…six years? Gee, maybe that should tell us something, eh?

I’m always amazed, after the example of about 99% of the post-colonial wars of liberation, that we keep trying to hammer the square peg of a bunch of Western boys in uniforms into the round hole of Asia and Africa. Is there something real tricky about this I’m not getting?

Mike Forces, guys. Mike Forces.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to pretend that this will “solve” the problems of central Asia. All it will do is what a good punitive expedition will do: kill and scatter enough of the local bazaar badmashes to let our merchants trade with the local satrap in peace until next time. Just like the Brits did for 100 years.

Whether we WANT to be the next generation to play the Great Game? Well, that’s a geopolitical conversation, not a strategic one.

AJK August 22, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I don’t know if Registan auto-htmls, but I have a very good reason why the US doesn’t want to just pick a local dude to do our business for us: We don’t know who they’ll end up being in a decade:

There’s really no “Good Guy” in Afghanistan who’s going to get everyone wearing suits and nikes. Whatever the solution is going to be, its going to look very different than Afghanistan does now, the US is not going to tab Sherzai or Karzai or whoever else to be The Man because all of these folks are human and have shortcomings.

Thanks to globalization, just hiring a local despot won’t work anymore. Corruption is going to blow holes in whatever regime…the current plan seems to be to create a whole new BUREAUCRACY, the efficacy of which is a bit debatable.

FDChief August 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

And to continue – the geopolitical question that is Helena’s “just war” starter is, I think, still out. We don’t have an REAL vital interests in the ‘Stans, when you think about it.

We have some commercial and political interests, but nothing that constitutes and existential threat (at least, no existential threat that is topographically fixed – AQ can work just as well out of the jungles of Mindanao or the mountains of Somalia).

Which makes the “proxy war” even more sensible. We “win” by not fighting, not in person, but rather, as the Romans did, by bribing, suborning, threatening and seducing the locals.

It’s still ugly, but it’s less ugly than sending the legions out to make a wasteland and call it peace.

AJK August 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm

While we’re at it, Mindanao doesn’t have jungles (much more savannah-y) and Somalia doesn’t have mountains (at least not on the Hindu Kush scale). And ohmyGodyes do “we” have real vital interests in the stanlar: loads of gas, oil, precious metals, other mineable commodities…CAsia is probably the last open space left and every major American mining or energy company, bank or holding company is just dying to get into it. It just so happens that “we” ain’t the only ones.

The Roman style simply won’t work, as I mentioned above. The last time the US had a proxy war that worked out well in the long-run would probably be the ’79 coup in Turkey, and that was anti-Communist in a country with one of the most well-run militaries in the world.

Afghanistan and the rest of the stans are going to require some really creative thinking that can’t use history as a reference…I’d rather see architects, industrial designers, anthropologists, etc get a say in the matter than historians. And this is coming from a historian.

FDChief August 22, 2009 at 1:32 pm

“we” have real vital interests in the stanlar: loads of gas, oil, precious metals, other mineable commodities”

OK, last time I checked, “we” weren’t in the commodities market, or, at least, the U.S. government that represents “we” wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the private corporations that ARE in the commodities markets (yet).

So whether you say this because you’re bring intentionally cute or are simply confused about the relationship between commercial interests and the public interests in a democracy I’m not sure.

But I covered my bases there: I will freely admit we have commercial interests in the ‘Stans. Regardless of who is involved, first, those interests are not served by internal war, whether we are involved in fighting them or whether our putative allies are.

And, second, all the commodities you mention are fungible. They will go to the highest bidder. If we want them, we can pay for them. There’s a name for trying to control the natural resources of foreign nations by force, and it’s not a pretty one.

If we can’t figure out how to serve our commercial mineral and petroleum interests in central Asia without 20,000 (or 40,000 or who knows what the deployed end state will be) uniformed bodies on the ground, then I would opine that architects and anthropologists would have little more concept of operations than historians. I would assume you mean “commodities brokers, geologists and mining engineers” instead.

But that’s not what our host was discussing with Mr. Exum. His point was that Exum insisted that the U.S. has vital strategic interests – significant, geopolitical interests – in the AfPak area that warrant the expenditure of time, wealth and energy, and yet failed to produce a single quantifiable interest. But dragging in the equally non-existential interests of U.S. petroleum and mineral consortia you simple restate his case.

FDChief August 22, 2009 at 1:36 pm

AJK: You seem to be convinced that because there will be blowback in a decade that we can’t use a local proxy.

But how is that worse than ending up being the de-facto colonial power in an impoverished, anarchic part of central Asia?

Toryalay Shirzay August 22, 2009 at 4:15 pm

All the arguments i have read so far seem to me like beating around the bush such as US/NATO interests,12-18 months timetable,proxy wars ,pacifist non-pacifist approach,central Asian resources and etc.These arguments of course will continue but, at the end of the day,it will be alot more useful if we call a spade a spade so that liberty is kept strong and alive!T o this end ,this war is not about Afghanistan or Pakistan or their people as these are used as tools in the much wider push for pan-islamism.This war is and must be about defeating Islamic fascism which arose in Arabia to enhance the conquest of terretories and people by the sword and which expressly calls for the killing of infidels;it bestows very high honors on any moslem who kills infidels or gets killed doing so.If you knew the mindset of Islamic fascists,then you would have known the attack on the US is only the tip of an iceberg.Islamic fascists feel they defeated a great superpower,the Soviet Union, and it is only a matter of time before they defeat their archenemy,the US.According to their mindset,the US is no big deal as Allah and Mohammad are far more powerful.Right now,today,this war is really only a skirmish compared to major war fought in the last century and if this war is not won at this early stage,it will metastasize into huge horrific wars of the 21st century.Although Western policy makers can claim not have fathomed the mindset of Islamic fascists,they cannot claim they weren’t forewarned herein.And you can take it to the bank,guaranteed.The reason this war hasn’t been won so far has a lot to with inexcusable incompetence and unforgiveable corruption on all parties involved not to mention being impatient,getting bored too quickly,having a short memory ,loud cries from chicken liberals who have forgotten how Carter ended up a one term president and so on.

anand August 22, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Helena Cobban, if the US or the west wasn’t involved, who would you root for between the “Taliban” and her allies on one side and the elected GIRoA and the ANA and ANP who are loyal to it on the other?

I am sure you know that the Feb 9, 2009, public opinion poll of Afghans found that 91% of Afghans had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. The June, 2009, poll showed similar results. I am sure you would agree that the ANA is by far the most beloved and respected institution among the Afghan people.

Do you think the Taliban has the “RIGHT” to rule the Afghans who don’t want them; and to kill the ANA and GIRoA at will?

FDChief August 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

“This war is and must be about defeating Islamic fascism which arose in Arabia to enhance the conquest of terretories and people by the sword and which expressly calls for the killing of infidels;it bestows very high honors on any moslem who kills infidels or gets killed doing so.”

There’s a name for what you are suggesting. It is called crusading, and the last time the West tried what you’re suggesting the end result was the Ottoman Army hammering on the gates of Vienna. Only a fool or a madman would suggest that we begin a 14th Crusade in an era of Atomic Weapons.

Islamic fundamentalism is a throwback to medieval theocracy. It can only be defeated by the Muslims themselves much as we Westerners defeated our own theocracies, by a Muslim Enlightenment. We cannot bring that to the middle east by force. We can help through exchanges of ideas, social networking…all that soft power stuff you’re laughing at

But if we try and do it with a soldier, they will close up behind the Islamists. We’ve already shot ourselves in the ass by ousting Saddam and showing the Muslim world that secular strongmen are helpless against the infidel, that only the muj fight and kill their enemies.

There’s a place for Western spies, diplomats and soldiers. But what is being questioned here is whether Afghanistan is a place for the “big battalions”, or whether our kinetic operations there are 1) more expensive that any return can every justify, and 2) more likely to led to a weak, corrupt autocracy propped up by foreign bayonets than a less intrusive, economy of force politico-military assisstance program would be.

I realize that that’s a hard picture to draw with crayon.

anand: If all those Afghans hate the Talibs, then why the hell aren’t they storming the ANA recruiting stations to take on their enemies? This is Afghanistan, right? One of the world’s most warlike societies?

So. Bullshit. The “right” to rule the Afghans goes to whoever the Afghans – not us, not the British, not NATO – will fight for, as it always has.

anand August 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

FDChief, to repeat something you know, the ANA is only able to accept a small fraction of all applicants to join the force. Unfortunately, as you are well aware, the ANA budget is “FAR” to small to pay them. Afghans rush to join the ANA even though the ANA pays perhaps one third as much as the Taliban pays their soldiers. FDChief, when was the last company sized engagement that the ANA lost (ok, one battalion of the 207th ANA were bailed out of a fight in Farah a few months ago by close air support that killed civilians. But beside this example?) How popular do you think the ANA is among the Afghan people? I don’t think you really believe that the ANA will not fight. Perhaps you implicitly support Taliban attacks against the ANA but are too embarrassed to openly admit it. Your motivation for writing comments might be to encourage to international community to cut off funding, training and equipping of the ANA.

Thinking that might makes right rather than justice or the will of the people is so medieval and so “western.” Do you think Hilter had a right to rule the former USSR? He likely would have if America didn’t help the Soviets during WWII.

To repeat something else that most readers know, the primary long term challenge in Afghanistan is economic development. The entire GIRoA collects $600 million a year in revenue, or considerably less than Afghanistan’s education budget alone. The GIRoA steady state budget is about $6 billion a year or ten times annual Afghan revenue. Finding a way to promote private sector Afghan growth, and increase GIRoA revenue ten fold is the largest challenge in Afghanistan.

FDChief August 24, 2009 at 8:26 am

anand: First, the reason I write comments is that I am not a fool and I am not fooled. The definition of foolishness is trying the same thing and expecting a different result. Every invader from Tamurlane on down has mucked around in the Afghan mess and you’ll note that it’s as messy as ever. Please – if you want to mire my country in the ‘Stans like Spain in the Netherlands, take your snake oil down to the next house. We need to forget about sentimental appeals to “the will of the people”. We helped Stalin for hard, cold political reasons. Our involvement in the AfPak needs to be guided by the same.

Second, so you’re saying that despite their intense, violent hatred for the Talibs, the ordinary Afghan isn’t flocking to the Karzai banner because…they won’t get PAID? You’re saying the Talibs – a defeated faction out of national power, pursued by the entire might of the Western coalition, pays their footsoldiers MORE?

What are you smoking? And can I have some?

Read my posts. I’m arguing for MORE support for our local Afghan proxies, not less. I’m arguing that the PROBLEM is that we’re jumping entire battalions of Western troops into what is now a local political squabble. I’m suggesting that we back off the Western troops, jack a bunch of money and trainers into the Afghan Army and let Afghan boys fight what is an Afghan fight.

If Afghanistan is a backwards 18th Century dump, it’s an Afghan problem, not a NATO problem, not a U.S. problem. The only problem is when an Afghan faction reaches out to attack U.S. interests. They did, we slapped them out of power. We now have two choices; to spend the next hundred years fiddling around in central Asia trying to make our proxy the power in the Afghan/Pakistan region, or doing what smart imperial powers have always done – apply a little force here, a little bribery there, and ensure that the barbarians are only a danger to each other.

It took two hundred years, an industrial revolution and two world wars to create the modern U.S. economy. I’m not sure how you figure that “funding, training and equipping” ANYthing in Afghanistan is going to replicate that in a human lifetime.

Afghanistan is and will be a chaotic backwater for decades. We can either bite off a piece of that or recognize it for what it is, a landlocked tribal wasteland of peripheral strategic interest to us and apply an appropriate level of money and power to it. Great powers flourish by recognizing what is central to their interests and what is not. The EU is important, Russia and China are important, Mexico is important (if only for it’s proximity).

Afghanistan is a sideshow. To throw lavish money into central Asia while Mexico falls to chaos and the narcotraficantes is the definition of foolishness.

AJK August 24, 2009 at 9:00 am

Chief, I think there’s some confusion in your history (which may or may not apply). Timur cleaned up in Afghanistan, as well as like, everywhere else he went.

And there’s really no reason to attack, anand said why the Taliban can pay people more: “The entire GIRoA collects $600 million a year in revenue, or considerably less than Afghanistan’s education budget alone.” I’m not sure where his source is, but he seems like a smart guy, like everyone else here, so I’m inclined to believe him.

Basically, I disagree with you on some of your thoughts on the region. Mostly the idea that Afghanistan is a sideshow. I’m betting my future paychecks on Central Asia being incredibly important over the next few decades, so I think that the energy and resources there will become absolutely vital as resources elsewhere fall short. And if Russia and China (and certainly, India and Iran) are important, one would imagine the huge chunk of land between the few of them is, too.

I can’t imagine the good folks at Registan want us taking over their comments page bickering. As Abu M said, “that is a conversation I would be happy to have — just not in the comments section of a blog.” My blogspottastic blog is incredibly quiet, if you drop a line over there with your e-mail attached, I’d be glad to shoot e-mails back and forth with you.

FDChief August 24, 2009 at 8:31 am

“Do you think Hilter had a right to rule the former USSR? He likely would have if America didn’t help the Soviets during WWII.”

Your analogy is poor. Did STALIN have the right to rule the former USSR? He was a brutal, undemocratic despot determined to bury us. But we didn’t send ten brigades to help the Hungarian rebels or to roll back Soviet rule in the Ukraine. We waited, used our covert and indirect power to thwart him when and where we could. And guess what? We won in the end.

The Talibs are a local faction in Afghan politics, one we dislike. IF we want them gone, in the final analysis, we can’t do the work – the Afghans themselves will have to reject them. And I mean the Pashtun – just paying off a bunch of Tajiks and Hazaras to do it won’t wash, in the long run.

Toryalay Shirzay August 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm

FDC,your approach to the current AFPAK situation is similar to the one pursued by the US after the collapse of Soviet Union and guess where that led us,disaster .You misunderstand the Taliban completely.The Taliban were put together by the money and ideology from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Shieks and by the expert crafty managers of the Paki establishment to take over Afghanistan first and then to extend their power over the entire central Asia ,As we speak,there is a great push for pan-islamism especially by islamic fascists and islamic apologists.They want to unite all the lands that were Islamic before the onset of the Great Game period.So the Taliban are not just local warriors but part of an international network of fighters to unite all moslem lands and then some.Your writings show a classic case of an armchair “expert” with shallow understanding and lets hope will not have tragic repercussions .

anand August 24, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Shirzay, there is a global extremist network. Terrorist attacks around the world are related. The main target of the extremists are “lesser” traditional muslims. I don’t agree that they are “fascists.” They seek to establish God’s will on earth, where God’s will is interpreted and enforced by them. They are idealists or do gooders gone wild who believe that all the pleasures of the mortal world are infinitesimal compared to the divine bliss of the transcendent. They seek to convert the world to their vision of “true” islam, which doesn’t include most traditional sunnis; let alone sufis, shia or nonmuslims.

The problem I have with your phraseology is that some muslims might misunderstand and find it offensive. This is why I call them Takfiri extremists. I don’t even call them Salafi, Wahhabi (a subset of Salafi) or Deobondi Salafi extremists; because they are millions of very good and spiritual Wahhabis, Deobondis and Salafis who shouldn’t in any way be associated by anyone with the extremists. The extremists also shouldn’t get the title “Jihadi” since that term should only apply to muslims involved in religiously sanctioned struggle.

Few things offend me as much as the widely held view by many that Takfiri extremists mass murdering hundreds of thousands of muslim civilians isn’t as abhorrent as extremists killing westerners, Chinese, Indians or Russians.

FDChief, I thought you were trying to insult the ANA. If you weren’t, then my apologies. Some of your words do not seem respectful to Afghans: “Afghanistan is and will be a chaotic backwater for decades. We can either bite off a piece of that or recognize it for what it is, a landlocked tribal wasteland” I know the Afghans have problems, but they really aren’t as different from you as you implicitly seem to assume.

Afghanistan was a province of the (Mongol) Moghul empire until around 1700, just like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Afghanistan was a province of the Persian empire between about 1700 and 1747. To assume that Afghans cannot achieve what Iranians, Indians and Bangladeshis have is plain old offensive.

I believe that long term economic development in Afghanistan can work. The last province of the Moghul empire (which emanated from Uzbechistan and Afghanistan) dissolved in 1948 in Hyderabad, South India. {similar to how the Roman empire ended in 1453 in Constantinople.} Today Hyderbad (which has many traditional orthodox muslims) is a major global software, semiconductor and industrial center. I believe the Afghans are capable of so much more than many believe.

I am an American like you, and I don’t want US combat troops to stay in Afghanistan much longer. I think we should transition to an Afghan capacity building mission ASAP. Let the Afghans fight the AQ linked networks mostly on their own.

To me the most important of the three international missions in Afghanistan is the long term mission of economic development. (The other two being short term security improvement and medium term Afghan capacity building.) I believe this to be strongly in America’s national interests.

“You’re saying the Talibs – a defeated faction out of national power, pursued by the entire might of the Western coalition, pays their footsoldiers MORE?” Yes. Ask yourself where Taliban financing and support are coming from.

The Afghans were fighting the Taliban. But the world called it “warlordism” and “tribal confederacies” and demanded that the GIRoA dismantle them, which it mostly did. The world is demanding that the ANSF and GIRoA maintain a monopoly of force and not support war lords or tribal confederacies. The only way Afghans can legally fight the Taliban is by joining the ANA or ANP. And many more want to join them than the ANA and ANP will hire.

Madhu August 24, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Anand – you’ve brought up the Hyderbad example before, on Abu M, I believe. But Hyderbad is part of a larger Indian state, doesn’t this make a difference?

Also, why do you term it short term security, mid term capacity building, and long-term economic development? How can you have long term economic development without long term security? One leads to the other? Anyway, am enjoying reading your comments here.

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