Strategic Incoherence

by Joshua Foust on 9/1/2009 · 5 comments

Ann Scott Tyson has the skinny on General McChrystal’s ++secret assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy.

I actually agree with this, but why is that the case? As Judah Grunstein noted the other day, the fact that there even is a debate over strategy means the administration has already lost the debate. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a strategy, but if they’re going to posit two superficially unrelated arguments—a) we must destroy al Qaeda and prevent them from gaining safe haven; and b) we must implement a counterinsurgency strategy to support the government of Afghanistan—then there needs to be a rhetorical conjunction linking the two.

That’s what I’ve been building toward with the nascent series on the strategic discussion here. But it seems like no one either in the Obama Administration or the military is articulating why a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (and not, say, Pakistan) is the most promising method of ensuring al Qaeda never again imposes a strategic threat against us. And if they can’t articulate why we should be there… I’m curious if I should even bother.

Meanwhile, it’s become really annoying how all the coverage of the strategic assessment has focused on the troop request (“population centers in Kandahar and Khost?” Really, you guys?), and not on the actual strategy. Reading the reports on the report, yo would think it was only a request for more troops, until you realize that it actually doesn’t request troops at all!

Ridiculous. That’s not reporting—that’s assumption. And it’s not helping anyone wrap their heads around the growing strategic incoherence of the Obama administration.

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This post was written by...

– 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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Keith September 1, 2009 at 8:52 am

You should articulate the “rhetorical conjuction” because no one else can or will.

M Shannon September 1, 2009 at 10:06 am

I think the strategic choices (which unfortunately play second fiddle to domestic and service politics) are:

1) A Forward Policy to fix Afghanistan so it will become inhospitable for international Jihadi operations.
2) A Defensive Policy: Defend the west using police and int while hunting AQ with OGA, SOF, indigenous Afghan and Pakistani forces, and US air power.

Right now we have a mix with the apparent desire of McCrystal et al to expand the forward policy. The defensive policy has worked well- attacks on the NATO homelands have been rare and hundreds of Jihadis have been killed or arrested. The AQ “leadership” is in hiding and will probably never appear (alive) in public again.

The question is why expand the forces devoted to the forward policy? Our defensive, investigative and hunting forces seem to be doing well and the Taliban have no chance of retaking Afghanistan as long as NATO SOF and air power are in range. If the Taliban are beginning to control larger parts of rural Afghanistan could the main reason be their ability to call on locals to fight the foreign occupiers which the forward policy plays into?

omar September 1, 2009 at 10:16 am

I posted this on Abu Muq and think its more relevant here:
I am going to stick my neck out and make some predictions (as an amateur with nothing to lose):
1. Af-pak is a cash cow for the Pak army, the insurgents, the afghan govt and assorted warlords. They have been in this trade so long, they are really really good at it. They will keep the temperature warm enough to keep things flowing, but not hot enough to scald. There is also a lot of US prestige and credibility at stake (such things do exist). Then there is the bureaucratic inertia of the US establishment. Maybe we should factor in some actual corruption (in the sense of US officers whose direct financial interests are tied with this policy). Finally, India and China and Russia and Iran do NOT want a jihadi takeover of Afghanistan, but are OK with seeing the US bleed a little in the process (well, maybe not India, not the bleeding part; they are probably the closest thing to a genuine ally in this endeavor, but they are also the most rickety state on that list, so they count for less). SO, the prediction is that all these forces will conspire (sometimes literally, mostly indirectly) to keep the US in Afghanistan doing recognizably similar things to what it is doing right now, for at least 2 more years.
2. The really mad cow jihadis are enough of a headache for pakistan that they will need to be fought. The army will try to convince some to go to Kashmir and others to join the “good taliban” (aka Haqqani network??) but there are true believers in that party and they are the wild card. They can upset the best laid plans of mice and men. 0ne really big attack in India or the US and all bets are off. No prediction.
3. I think the US is not impossibly far from a workable afghan govt but if the current Karzai setup is the best they can do, then it doesnt look like it will work. On the other hand, maybe the embassy is not clueless and they have a cunning plan. Prediction: I am unable to decide so I tossed a coin (literally) and came up with this: Miracle Max will deliver. The US will stabilize a near-workable Afghan govt enough to make a legitimate drawdown in 5 years (not a Saigon embassy helicopter scene). A jihadist insurgency will continue, just as it does in Iraq, and in time India and china and Pakistan and iran will have more to do with it than the US does, but it wont be a defeat. It will cost a hell of a lot of money and will finance many mansions in Pakistan, Afghanistan, England, and back in the US itself, where blackwater investors will be joined by discerning warlords and Pak army generals (who will buy ranches to escape the disorder back home).
Wishful thinking?

anan September 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Omar, you are depressing 🙁 The reason you are so depressing is that you are on to something.

Might respond at more length later.

Helena Cobban September 1, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I honestly think there IS no “rhetorical conjunction”– that is, no clear and compelling argument that proves that because the USG wants to “defeat AQ+ and deny them sanctuary”, therefore it has to successfully engage in nation-building in Afghanistan.

I agree with Josh that no-one in the administration has made this argument and they darn’ well ought to. But till they do, I too would like to see his (your) best effort supplying the argument…

The part of it that I totally can’t wrap my head around is why it should– or even COULD– be the US that does this… Surely other parties in the region have (a) much more incentive, (b) much more of a culturally relevant knowledge-base, (c) ways shorter logistics, and (d) much more readiness to engage over the longterm in a political stabilization effort in Afghanistan (which is, I think, a muh more realistic goal than “nation-building”).

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