Afghanistan: The Politics of Escalation vs. the Politics of Withdrawal

If you’re having trouble keeping the Afghanistan war debate straight, I can’t recommend highly enough Tony Corn’s article in Small Wars Journal (.pdf), titled, “Toward a Kilcullen-Biden Plan? Bounding Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.”

Corn essentially argues that the problem with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic review is that it pays lip service to the importance of the political dimension of counterinsurgency without truly following it through to its logical conclusions, and that the troop increase he requested is presented as an open-ended commitment. Instead, according to Corn, the troop increase should be bounded in time, put in the context of Vice President Joe Biden’s emphasis on broad regional diplomatic buy-in, and accompanied by a real inclusion of Afghanistan’s political realities in the equation.

There are difficulties with the plan, such as the problems involved in going back to basics in terms of Afghanistan’s constitutional order. But Corn does a remarkable job of parsing both the strengths of COIN as a doctrine and the weaknesses of how it’s being applied to Afghanistan as a dogma, in a way that adds a great deal of clarity to the debate.

Both proponents and opponents of escalation have argued that many of the tactical and strategic objectives articulated — e.g., effective Afghan security forces, a stable Afghanistan and region — are not achievable short of a major increase of resources for the war. That means not just troops and military trainers, but civil society trainers, development funds and regional diplomatic initiatives as well.

Opponents, myself included, have made the argument that the civil component is unavailable, and the military component is simply not politically sustainable in America, let alone Europe. Is it regrettable that Americans don’t have the stomach for a generational project that could advance the historic process of global integration? Perhaps. But that’s the handicap democracies face in war. And the particular American aversion to war — perceived as an aberration that occurs only after the political process regulating normal relations between states has failed — means that America just doesn’t do limited war well. Anything short of total war to destroy either an existential threat or a representation of pure evil is not likely to be politically sustainable.

Afghanistan, or even the threats posed by a broader destabilization in the region, will never fall into that category, no matter how painful the potential worst-case scenarios might be to America and its allies. So whether the strategic argument, in theory, is based on America’s national interest in eliminating the threat posed by al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, or the Pakistani Taliban, in the real world of politically accountable civilian government, we will have to settle for some sort of optimized containment approach.

But where most opponents of escalation have erred is to minimize the politics of withdrawal — that’s to say, the criteria for when we can “declare victory, and go home.” I believed — as did, I suspect, the Obama administration — that the troop increase announced in February/March had satisfied those criteria. As I’ve argued recently, had a number of factors outside U.S. control played out differently, we both might have been right. Specifically, the situation in Afghanistan might have looked very different today had our NATO allies responded in kind to the American troop increase, had the Karzai government made some meaningful progress in rooting out corruption and conducting a fair election, and had Pakistan tightened the screws earlier on militants in the frontier tribal areas. The political optics surrounding the Obama administration’s current strategic re-evalutation, too, might have been very different had McChrystal’s report not been leaked.

But “if” is probably the longest two-letter word in the English language. And so we now have a necessary debate taking place, one that is cloaked in the language of victory, but that is really about exit strategies. And I think that Corn’s proposal represents the most politically feasible one, for the way it addresses the politics of both escalation and withdrawal.

It has its potential weaknesses, which Corn acknowledges. The idea of bounding the time horizon of the escalation — that is, making it a surge — could also lead to Afghan fence-sitting. But as he says, if it’s true that the outcome in Afghanistan will ultimately be decided by Afghans, sitting on the fence is in many ways equivalent to choosing a side.

Corn doesn’t address the question of whether or not the logic of escalation can be contained, or whether this is simply a slippery slope that will lead inevitably to quagmire. Here, the comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are most instructive for what they can reveal about the battlefield in Washington, more than any tactical or strategic parallels between the two wars that do exist.

America will survive Afghanistan, one way or the other, just as it survived Vietnam. But surviving is not the same as thriving. And for all the ways in which the current geopolitical situation — convergence of major power interests, for instance — is an advantage in terms of the objectives in Afghanistan, the broader uncertainty about global power centers makes an abject American failure there more unsettling than it was in Vietnam. (And the ways in which America’s failure in Vietnam was unsettling is being perhaps under-emphasized these days.)

Corn’s approach, if adhered to, avoids the dangers of both a middle path and an endless one. Kudos to SWJ for once again publishing a piece that challenges the shibboleths not only of its core readership, but of the broader policy community as well.