Afghanistan: The Fog of Politics

A lot of the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan revolves around how central safe havens are to the ability of transnational terrorist networks to target the U.S. and the West. Simply put, if you believe, as the Obama administration has stated it does, that the principal mission in Afghanistan is to eliminate the threat posed by al-Qaida, the question becomes, To what extent does that mission depend on denying the group the use of territory?

Only after you’ve established your position on safe havens does the question arise of whether creating a stable Afghan state is the best way to achieve such an objective — i.e., to COIN or not to COIN. Because if you’re not convinced that safe havens are a sufficient or even a necessary component for terrorist networks to operate, then a CT mission that targets al-Qaida leaders in the Pakistani FATA with a lighter footprint on the ground in Afghanistan seems like a more cost-efficient approach.

Kings of War has a non-polemic roundup of the range of safe haven arguments that’s useful for organizing your own thoughts in the face of the confusing cascade of all-Afghanistan, all-the-time op-eds we’re now faced with. I come down — like the post’s author, Patrick Porter — in the camp that’s skeptical of both the claims of safe havens’ absolute centrality and the claims of their absolute irrelevance. Physical space matters, and the actual physical space represented by the Afghan-Pakistani border area currently has more significance than other ungoverned territories, like Somalia or Yemen.

The tricky part is that because al-Qaida’s leadership can migrate its headquarters more easily than we can migrate our war effort, we’re giving an enormous advantage — namely, the initiative to determine the field of battle — to the enemy. And because safe havens are necessary but not sufficient for terrorist operations, denying them is just one component of an effective, full-spectrum counterterrorism strategy. So I’m not convinced that an expansive — and expensive — nation-building mission in any one territory is the best way to address the problem.

But there are flaws with any other approach proposed so far, as Anthony Cordesman, in a four-minute audio interview with the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen, makes clear in his usual thorough and articulate manner.

Another problem, as Cordesman points out, is that the debate, as it’s unfolding in the media, is riddled with misinformation and false propositions. Remember how last March, al-Qaida was a grave threat, and drone strikes targeting its leadership in the Pakistan FATA were exacerbating a catastrophic situation that, if not urgently reversed, could lead to the imminent takeover of Pakistan, nukes and all, by the Taliban? Now it turns out that, for all that Afghanistan is on the brink, things aren’t so bad in the FATA, after all.

I suppose it makes as much sense to complain about opinion shaping as it does about the weather. But there’s still some value in pointing it out as it happens.

The debate in Washington now boils down to political optics — namely, of whether or not to send more troops, itself an area of some opaqueness. Generating public support, of course, is an important component in a democracy’s conduct of war. But the current battle for American public opinion obscures the ways in which the answer to many of the questions we’re confronted with in Afghanistan is that we simply don’t know. The only thing that’s certain is that none of the proposed approaches is free, and none offers an iron-clad guarantee of success. They all come with costs and risks attached. It would be refreshing to see that more forthrightly acknowledged as the debate moves forward.