Paying the Cost of Leaving Afghanistan

I somehow overlooked Jim Molan’s outstanding assessment of the state of play in Afghanistan in my daily read of the Interpreter, but luckily caught it the second time around thanks to the gang at SWJ. Molan, a retired Australian general, says everything there is to be said for the time being — namely that, rhetoric and opinion shaping to the contrary, we’re in a holding pattern in Afghanistan. According to his estimates, we’ll need to triple troop levels before we break out of that holding pattern, and the necessary resources will come from the U.S., not NATO.

That pretty much squares with how I’ve been reading the news out of Afghanistan, including the recent Marine operation in the southwest. Despite the media’s need for some sort of decisive event, I don’t see one happening. Which explains the attention drift Stateside regarding the wars, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although that’s been decried in many quarters, it strikes me as normal and in some ways advisable. The attention necessary to generate political will, while necessary at decisive turningpoints, is not sustainable throughout the long slog of this kind of campaign.

As for the mid-term future in Afghanistan, violence will probably grind on, either steadily flat or steadily upward. That’s because the Afghan insurgency, while inferior in terms of equipment and training, is a formidable adversary in terms of tactics and strategy. This reminds me of something an Ecuadoran artist once told me when we were discussing North-South relations. “‘Third World’ can only refer to an economy,” he said, “not to a culture.” In the same way, “asymmetric” can only refer to the operational capacities of a fighting force, not its capacity for strategic thinking.

It seems increasingly obvious that the troop increases announced by President Barack Obama were based on political optics more than strategic considerations. It seems even more obvious that the tripling of resources Molan refers to is politically impossible. That would essentially entail redirecting Iraq troop rotations to Afghanistan during the course of 2011, instead of bringing them home. Most significantly, perhaps, the holding pattern we are in has been sold as a decisive turning point that it can never be. That suggests to me that this is the calm before the storm, not of escalation, but of withdrawal.

Like during the tail end of the Vietnam War, when the battles continued despite war planners knowing the war had been lost, we are paying the cost of leaving. That’s a terrible cost, especially for those who are paying it in blood in Afghanistan. But that is the reality.

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