Is Success Possible in Afghanistan?

With the news that American intelligence has effectively linked Pakistan’s ISI intelligence/security apparatus to militants targeting American and Indian interests in Afghanistan, it’s become obvious that the only real differences between Pakistan and Iran are that, 1) Pakistan already has nuclear weapons while Iran is only allegedly pursuing them; 2) Pakistan is undermining our efforts in Afghanistan while Iran is operating mainly in Iraq; and 3) Pakistan has received $10 billion in American military aid over the past seven years while Iran is the target of American military contingency plans. It also bears mention that unlike Iran, where the central government exercises effective control over its territory (if perhaps not over some elements of the Revolutionary Guards), Pakistan is facing a growing insurgency that has spread out of the frontier badlands and into the Swat valley that is ostensibly under the central government’s rule.

Daniel Larison rightly points out that the failure of the Pakistani government not only to rein in the ISI but to even nominally bring it under civilian command has not gotten as much attention as it deserves. But attention alone does not provide any simple solutions to the essential problem: Pakistani security interests in Afghanistan do not match our own, for reasons that have to do with its regional rivalry with India. That’s an element that not only have we failed to adequately address in our Afghanistan policy, but that in facilitating a Pakistani arms buildup we’ve actually exacerbated. And it’s hard to see a way through to our objectives in Afghanistan without Pakistan on board.

As for calls for unilateral strikes across the Pakistan border, here’s what Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.) has to say in a report on the prospects for the Afghanistan War (.pdf) released two days ago:

Pakistan is a state of four separate nations under a weak federal government. The Pakistani military is the central loadbearing institution of the state. It is the most respected institution in Pakistan. The Army has severe military limitations in its ability to control the FATA and Baluchistan frontier areas.

A major US intervention across the Pakistan border to conduct spoiling attacks on Pashtun and criminal syndicate base areas would be a political disaster. We will imperil the Pakistani government’s ability to support our campaign. They may well stop our air and ground logistics access across Pakistan and place our entire NATO presence in severe jeopardy.

McCaffrey maintains that “. . .[w]e cannot allow ourselves to fail in Afghanistan,” but like Vikram Singh in his recent WPR piece, rejects the idea that an increased American military presence alone is sufficient to achieve victory. In addition to the need for a five-battalion engineering brigade to help build roads and train Afghan engineers, McCaffrey identifies increased NATO invovlement as “. . .central to our pupose.” Trouble is, here’s how he characterizes NATO’s current engagement:

Current non-US NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan are in many cases woefully inadequate for the task they face. They have serious restrictive caveats to their military employment. They are casualty adverse in a very dangerous and brutal environment. They are in many cases lacking the force enablers that are a prerequisite to effective COIN operations. (Helicopter and UAV support, intelligence, logistics, engineers, civil affairs and special operations units, precision artillery munitions, trauma medical support, cash for nation-building economic activity, etc.)

As for America’s military capacity, he’s even more pessimistic:

Much of our ground and air equipment is falling apart. The anemic US Air Force and Naval modernization programs will place us in great risk in the Pacific in the coming decades. The Armed Forces are under-resourced and inadequately sized for the national security strategy we have pursued.

There is a serious mismatch between ends and means. We are going to wreck the US Armed Forces unless Congress and the next Administration address this situation of great strategic peril.

Question: How do we do that without a massive redirection of American productive genius into a broadly expanded militarism that McCaffrey describes as a 25-year generational effort for Afghanistan alone?

Another question: How do we square the idea of a generation-long military effort in the name of denying terrorists a foothold in a destabilized region with the recently released RAND study (WaPo article here, RAND press release here) that essentially calls into question this very strategy?

I recently found myself wondering just how it is that the Taliban went from being an odious disgrace along the lines of the Myanmar junta to being a national security threat to the United States. By erasing the distinction between al-Qaeda and the militant tribal villagers that put up with them, we’ve also erased both the distinction between the relative threat that each one presents, as well as the distinction between the most appropriate way of dealing with each. How seriously would we take a Swat-based Pakistani cleric threatening waves of suicide bombers were it not for the fact that we’re deeply engaged in neighboring Afghanistan? The logic of 9/11 should never have led us to this.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that failure in Afghanistan will represent a permanent or insurmountable strategic setback for either the U.S. or NATO. But the problem with declaring that failure is not an option, besides the fact that it isn’t true, is that without a credible plan for success, the choice is no longer between failure and success, but between just what form failure will take.