Let us rehash, briefly: about two years ago, before any of the Obama troop surges flowed into Afghanistan, there was a growing caucus of progressives urging against it. I disagreed with them, for very specific, narrow reasons (I described it as being “marginally anti-non-escalation”).
Leaving aside the many reasons the Afghanistan mission remains a good one, “escalation,” or increasing troop levels to an appropriate, rather than the currently inadequate, level, is riddled with problems. It must accompany a shift in U.S. policy, away from the snag-and-bag night raids that turn far more people against us than it nabs terrorists. It must accompany a radical departure from the FOB mentality and involve dispersing units into the countryside and into the community. And it must accompany a radical departure from the utterly failed counternarcotics campaigns of the last 7 years.
I support the idea of adding more troops to the mix. But only if they’re used properly.
Needless to say, that has not happened, and in many ways my worst fears—the military doubling down on bad strategy in support of assumptions instead of outcome—have largely come true. Indeed, I would describe the current leadership of ISAF as crippled by delusions, especially judging by their pre-reaction to the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan (the Pentagon doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge that intelligence analysis is only as good as the data going into the analysis—and as the military’s own top intelligence officers have said, they produce lousy data). The war is going badly, and literally the only people desperate to cling to optimism about it are the military.
As a case in point, Rajiv Chandrasekaran ran a fascinating piece about how they’re trying to pull lessons from unrepeatable coincidences of good luck:
It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly. But five visits by this reporter since July 2009 suggest that the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.
Indeed, Nawa, Helmand represents what might be possible if you flood a small area of 90,000 people with a huge number of troops, hundreds of millions of dollars, and cooperative and functional government officials. In other words, it is almost completely unworkable anywhere else in the country. But rather than seeing the unique conditions of Nawa as something to marvel at, Rajiv reports that General Petraeus sees it as a model for the rest of the country:
He points to major security improvements in and around Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, because of operations conducted by newly arrived U.S. soldiers. He notes that secret missions by Special Operations Forces over the past six months have resulted in the death or capture of hundreds of mid-level Taliban leaders, resulting in growing demoralization among insurgent commanders. And he expresses optimism about a new 20,000-man village defense program that is expanding law enforcement into areas the police do not patrol.
I must have missed these major security improvements. 2010 has been, predictably, the most violent yet. Hundreds of Kandahari families have been displaced by the fighting. And just this morning, six U.S. and two Afghan troops died from a bomb planted at their new base, in Petraeus’ security bubble around Kandahar. Killing off the mid-level leadership has fractured the Taliban, making them more radical and less wiling to consider negotiation (literally, they’ve learned the lesson that making themselves known, even if for talks with the government, is a death sentence), and the village-defense program is riddled with problems and rife with complaints of abuse, harassment, and corruption.
Meanwhile, Secretary Gates says that now the military has finally “reversed the Taliban’s momentum.” This clashes with the DOD’s own reporting on the war (pdf), which says that ISAF has achieved some progress, but its efforts to “reduce insurgent capacity, like reducing safe havens or attack capabilities, “have not produced measurable results.” Last year, ISAF decided to concentrate its efforts into a hundred or so “key terrain districts.” As Rajiv points out in the story above, “Not only have most of those places not improved, but Taliban activity, once concentrated in the south and east, has metastasized to northern and western parts of the country.”
Yet still, we are take Petraeus’ and Gates’ word that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, things are going well.
So it is into this environment that I more or less reverse myself and call for negotiations with the Taliban. Last July (and well into 2008), I had tried to argue that pushing for negotiations first was backwards, as I felt the Taliban’s momentum had to be reversed first. I was disdainful that the talks would mean anything, because I thought the conditions didn’t make any sense—it was too up in the air. I’m ashamed to realize that, in fact, every single mention of negotiations by Petraeus or even Holbrooke was an outright lie: they were not interested in negotiations per se, but rather abject surrender.
That is no basis for negotiations, or for having any kind of discussion. Which is why I have added my name to an open letter of scholars, journalists, NGO workers, and other related parties calling on President Obama to open a negotiations process in earnest. At this point, where almost all options—assassinating key- and mid-level leadership, COIN, reduced footprint, and so on—have been tried, I’m at a loss for what is left. It is far too late into the game to put into place my preferred option of small units of 8-10 troops in villages and strategic areas (the LDI program comes close, but it’s too incoherent, and too reliant on the Special Forces, to have any strategic effect at this point).
Really, the only option left is to offer a negotiations process. It might not work, and I am honest enough to say so that I have serious doubts about the initiatives I have heard of. But at this point, it is simply irresponsible not to begin the talking process even if the fighting must continue. As Myra MacDonald noted earlier this year, the conditions are right for both parties to begin the negotiations process, despite the severe risk. This entire process will involve a very difficult, and humbling, discussion of what is worth compromising on, and what is not—including the ability of U.S. forces to reserve a capability to strike any al Qaeda forces that may operate from uncontrolled areas of Afghanistan. It won’t be easy, by any stretch.
But ten years in, it should shock all of us that the U.S. has never tried. I feel ashamed to have believed the U.S. leadership was honestly pushing for negotiations. I suppose it is ironic that such shame now drives my support for the very negotiations I opposed, but there is simply no other way out of this conflict for us. We cannot wait another Friedman Unit for things to change—as far too many blind militarists are demanding. Negotiations are the only reasonable choice left.