Putting an Afghanistan Surge in Context

Just to follow up on what I wrote yesterday, I realize that endorsing a time-bounded but significant troop increase represents something of a reversal, in that I’ve argued consistently for drawing down the U.S military footprint in Afghanistan. So I feel like I owe an explanation, even if some of my ambivalence has come through in my previous posts.

Part of the reason for the shift is because, while I’m still very skeptical that we’ll be able to achieve even our minimal objectives in Afghanistan, I’m no longer convinced that they’re impossible. That comes from reading the arguments of a variety of experts, including Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid, who are intimately familiar with the country and region, as well as of a variety of military analysts who argue that, in essence, we really haven’t given it a real shot yet. And it also has to do with the fact, as I’ve pointed out, that a great deal of this argument rests on uncertainty, both of outcomes and potential risks.

Where my position remains consistent is that it is still firmly grounded in the logic of an exit strategy. By making a sizable commitment of military resources and broadening our strategy to include not only the political components of a COIN strategy, but a wide-reaching regional diplomatic solution, we just might seize the military initiative from the insurgency, and put the foundations in place for a stable political solution. Not a maximalist vision of a Switzerland in South Asia, but a country, and region, that won’t implode the day we leave.

The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that this kind of argument can become a vicious cycle, which is why we also need a disciplined adherence to guiding metrics, and the courage to ultimately say, We’ve done all we could, and it didn’t work. Right now, I don’t think anyone could, in all honestly, say that.

So what I’m suggesting is that President Barack Obama use this opportunity to explicitly communicate that the U.S. is willing to continue being the primary guarantor of this project. But also that he use it to explicitly set our conditions. Hopefully that is taking place now behind the scenes, although some observers seem to think that isn’t the case.

Those conditions should be a recommitment on the part of our NATO allies, which might be in the works. Obama should also sign on to — and, if need be, appropriate as his own — the French-British proposal for a regional summit, which I would argue should be a two-tiered one, including both great and regional powers on the one hand, and neighbors on the other. There, realistic but effective financial commitments and diplomatic frameworks should be formally established, on which the U.S. security guarantee should be explicitly conditioned.

In short, the message should be that we’re willing to assume our responsibility as the principal guarantor of this mission. But we will not do so indefinitely, or alone. If at the end of this crucial but time-bounded period, it’s clear that this has not been enough to align the necessary pieces for a stable outcome, we not only draw down the time-limited surge, but also the broader deployment.

One thing we can’t do, though, is continue to identify necessary pieces — a civilian surge, NATO support, legitimacy and good governance in Kabul, regional concertation — and then expect to succeed in their absence.

In all honesty, I’m not optimistic that a year from now, we’ll find ourselves in a significantly better situation. And even if we are, it might not be a direct result of the increased troops. But signaling matters, and although it might be too late, a message of strong commitment now, accompanied by more forceful and conditioned demands of our partners in the effort, might make the difference between a measured drawdown and an unraveling. And that’s a pretty big difference.