Afghanistan: The Case for a Happy Ending

Given all my griping about the war in Afghanistan, I thought I’d pass along two recent articles that offer a more positive outlook on the chances for a successful outcome there. The first is by Peter Bergen in the Washington Monthly (via Matthew Yglesias), the second by Fotini Christia and Michael Semple in Foreign Affairs (via Thomas P.M. Barnett).

Bergen attacks what he calls the twin myths that Afghanistan is unconquerable and ungovernable. He argues that both can be accomplished with the current military footprint (augmented by increased Afghan security forces), combined with an expanded and internationalized civilian footprint. Essentially, the Obama approach, as articulated.

Christia and Semple use the history of Afghan factionalism — and a surprising reliance on Afghan opinion polling — to argue that the U.S. effort should focus on heightened security combined with a political surge, facilitating the “flipping” of fickle Afghan militia leaders. Afghans go with the side that’s winning, so the best way to peel away “reconciliable” insurgents is to start winning, but also to aggressively woo them politically. Again, the Obama approach, as articulated.

If there’s a weak link to both arguments, it’s best summed up in this passage from Bergen, wherein he refutes comparisons between the Taliban insurgency and the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese regulars:

The some 20,000 Taliban fighters are too few to hold even small Afghantowns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive on Kabul. As a militaryforce, they are armed lightly enough to constitute a tactical problem,not a strategic threat.

In other words, the Taliban can’t win, so we can’t lose.

Anyone keeping score at home will know that the U.S. military has spent the past seven years disabusing itself of that very illusion. In reality, so long as the Taliban, or any insurgency, remains a tactical problem, they remain a strategic threat.

The crux of Bergen’s case — and, by extension, that of Christia and Semple — hinges on the ability of U.S. forces to improve security at their current numbers (unlikely), while rapidly replacing themselves with Afghan forces (spectacularly unlikely), before the costs of the war turn public opinion decisively. Needless to say, I remain unconvinced.

Afghanistan might be winnable, but not as currently defined, and not by us.