Defining the Afghanistan Mission

With the security situation in Iraq improved to the point where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates referred to entering the “endgame” in Congressional testimony yesterday, the question of what to do in Afghanistan is getting more and more attention every day. In the same testimony Gates, when pressed, conceded the possibility of adding three more brigades to our troop presence there next spring. That’s in addition to the additional brigade announced by President Bush for February, and would roughly meet the repeated requests of theater commanders. Meanwhile, the White House has announced an interdepartemental strategic review of Afghanistan policy to be carried out before the administration leaves office, and Gen. David Petraeus has also commissioned a strategic review from his CentCom braintrust.

Now if you’ve been following this debate recently, you’ll know that the emerging conventional wisdom is that the insurgent threat in Afghanistan has essentially been displaced to safe haven bases of operations across the Pakistani border. The Pakistani government is reluctant to go after the militants for a variety of reasons, creating the operational need for American cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory. The danger that these attacks could further destabilize the Pakistani civilian government, and by some accounts the Pakistani state itself, has in turn led to calls for a broader regional approach that addresses the principal motor driving Pakistan’s security posture, namely its historic rivalry with India.

So far, so good. But now that everyone’s thinking big picture, it helps to dial back in to the little picture, specifically just what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. That was the subject of a press briefing by Nathaniel Fick and Vikram Singh (.pdf) at the Center for a New American Security last week. (Scroll down this page to download the audio file.) And according to both, who just toured the country talking to civil, military and non-governmental types, the answer is still very confused.

Is the mission a nation-building/counterinsurgency operation? If so, we’re propping up a government that is widely perceived as corrupt from top to bottom not only by the general population, but also by its vice president in an on the record quote. We’re also trying to instill 21st century governance in what one questioner referred to as a 17th century society.

Is the mission a counterterrorism mission? If, so the additional troops will help tactically, but will do little to change the longterm strategic prospects. A more robust counterterrorism approach also risks inflaming anti-American opinion in both Afghanisan and Pakistan, especially given the growing use of airstrikes with the associated collateral costs in civilian casualties.

The two both advocate for the former approach, but argue that it will demand not only a significant increase in resources, but also a shift in emphasis from military to political solutions. Cross border strikes and a regional approach including Pakistan only make sense in that context. But before anything, they argue, the American people need to be prepared for the enormous costs of such a mission.