Finding an Afghanistan Exit Strategy

I’ve consciously avoided commenting on the broader subject of Afghanistan strategy over the past six months for three reasons. First, I agreed with the Obama administration’s December 2009 strategy review. Second, even if I didn’t, it seems counterproductive to relitigate the decision at the appearance of every news item that suggests things might not be going as planned. Third, any strategy takes time to assess, and will often defy momentary appearances.

So yes, Marjah was a disappointment, the Kandahar “offensive” has anti-climaxed before it even began, and it seems that the insurgency has made inroads into Afghanistan’s northern, non-Pashtun provinces. But the troops deployed as part of the Afghan surge are just beginning to arrive in significant numbers now, and won’t reach their peak levels until later this year. The implementation of the Obama administration’s strategy has to date amounted to little more than a show of force in Helmand and tightened rules of engagement to avoid the appearance of indifference to civilian casualties. So it’s understandable if it has yet to have a significant impact.

Still, for obvious reasons, now seems like a reasonable moment to consider the prospects of the Obama administration’s time-limited escalation of the Afghanistan war, and this NY Times article about how Pakistan is preparing for a post-drawdown Afghan landscape offers a useful point of departure.

At first glance, its portrayal of Afghan-Pakistani backroom dealing seems to confirm the widespread criticism of the administration’s insistence on a July 2011 timeline for a troop drawdown. On closer inspection, however, it also illustrates the logic at work behind the time-limited surge — namely, that it forces all the interested parties to stop counting on an endless U.S. security presence, and instead actively participate in stabilizing Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are finally delivering the Haqqani network, and the Afghan government is finally behaving as if its moral hazard has been revoked.

At the same time, a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Haqqani network, which is still far from a done deal, would also highlight the essential shortcoming of the Obama administration’s strategy, which hinged on COIN advocates’ contention that stabilizing Afghanistan would be a sufficient condition for denying al-Qaida a safe haven there. The logical fallacy behind the COIN/CT straddle would be perfectly exposed should the Haqqani network agree to a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul, but refuse to disavow al-Qaida.

At that point, America’s national security interests in Afghanistan, which are centered around containing al-Qaida, would essentially be at odds with what amounts to a workable solution to stabilizing the country. And America’s broader strategic interests in the region, which lie overwhelmingly with India, would also be damaged by the Aghan-Pakistani axis that would re-emerge.

If that sounds bad, keep in mind that a perfectly effective limited counterterrorism strategy, successfully carried out over the same timeframe, could have been easily undermined (at least politically, which would be enough) by a lucky shot on American soil — something that lone wolf attackers have demonstrated is still possible, if more difficult to pull off than the alarmists suggest. It’s also worth noting that even the best strategy can be undone by circumstances and events, and that luck and good fortune still play a role in war, as in all things.

Still, the McChrystal episode and personnel shake-up that will accompany Gen. David Petraeus’ assumption of command should serve as a wake-up call to the internal assumptions and logical inconsistencies of the Obama administration’s strategy. The best-case scenarios it aimed for seem to be increasingly compromised, which means that the focus of our efforts moving forward must be to secure the best conditions for our withdrawal.

Unlike some observers, I don’t believe that the Petraeus appointment necessarily added more time to our Afghanistan misadventure. Instead, it opens the door to accelerating the aggressive political dealmaking that is necessary to make sure that a stable Afghanistan does not come at the price of American security interests. Petraeus has already demonstrated himself to be adept at that kind of dealmaking, and he takes the reins at just the right time, in terms of the American surge, to make a convincing show of force in order to tilt the bargaining table in our favor. And while I don’t believe we’ll see a run for the exits come July 2011, I’m very skeptical that we’ll see any further escalation.

That means that Petraeus will be there to implement a conditions-based exit strategy. The strength of the Obama strategy was that it also offered the best political cover for drawing down the war in the event that proved to be necessary. Ironically, that strength grows out of the strategic ambiguity that was the plan’s greatest weakness. And if that seems confusing and paradoxical, it would only be par for the course in Afghanistan.

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