A Moment of Clarity in Afghanistan

Two news items from Afghanistan made quite an impact yesterday, offering a moment of clarity in what had become a largely theoretical debate over both tactics and strategy. The first is the increasing certainty that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s election victory will not withstand the taint of widespread voting fraud. The second is a riveting account from Jonathan Landay of an extended firefight between Afghan Army troops supported by embedded U.S. Marine trainers and Taliban insurgents.

With regards to the election, while fraud is almost inevitable in such a context, the problem arises both from what turnout revealed about popular confidence in the central government — not much — and from the taint of illegitimacy that has resulted from the perceptions of how widespread the fraud actually was. It’s not impossible that some sort of power-sharing agreement will be worked out that could salvage political stability in Kabul. But this very significantly damages one leg of the COIN stool — namely, to wage the counterinsurgency in support of a popularly recognized, legitimate host government.

Andrew Exum neither backs away
from how tough he has always said the misison would be, nor from his conviction that we must see it through. But this is telling:

When people look back on the Afghanistan war, this might be the momentwhen historians will judge we should have cut the cord on the Afghangovernment.

But what does COIN look like, theoretically, without the Afghan government? That’s a pretty tough question to answer.

Given Landay’s account, though, it might be the least of the COIN crowd’s worries. As John McCleary notes, Landay’s reporting highlights a vastly improved Taliban operational capability (a 9-hour sustained firefight), their advantage in the intelligence terrain (the mission was compromised by Afghan villagers), and their ability to conjugate the two:

The ability of theTaliban to leverage their information operations to support their combatoperations, as described by Landay, is a breakthrough in insurgent tacticalsuccess.

What’s worse is that the firefight ground on as long as it did, resulting in the death of four Marines, because air support was unavailable and artillery denied to the pinned down units to avoid causing civilian casualties.

COIN — done by the book, that is, without aggressive air support — in support of a legitimate Afghan government was already going to be a very tough sell. (For all the comparisons to COIN in Iraq, the Surge was accompanied by a massive increase in very kinetic air support.) Indeed, the Obama administration has spent an enormous amount of political capital over the past six months trying to convince skeptics that it had found a new strategy (going after al-Qaida) based on a new tactic (the use of COIN), and that the combination of the two would turn things around in Afghanistan, largely in order to prepare public opinion for accounts such as Landay’s. Given yesterday’s developments, that will be an increasingly difficult argument to defend.

Michael Cohen argues for a drawdown, while ruling out a precipitous withdrawal:

The key is to reframe the current mission. That means surrendering thedreams of fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan à la the Iraqsurge narrative. It means thinking less about COIN and more aboutcontainment. It means putting more military pressure on the Taliban andmore political pressure on Pakistan to target Afghan Taliban safehavens across the Durand line. It means speeding up the process oftraining the Afghan military and police so that they can at least holdtheir own versus the Taliban.

My hunch is that this measured reframing will soon accelerate into a rush for the door, especially in Europe. Yesterday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a joint letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, calling for a follow-up Afghanistan conference, essentially to formulate an exit strategy.

So while I agree with Cohen that an immediate withdrawal is ill-advised, it is time for the Obama team to begin planning contingencies for how to responsibly draw down our footprint, while maintaining some ability to carry out our national security objectives in the region.