The Afghan Paradox

In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s announcement of an American troop increase in Afghanistan, Germany has signaled a troop increase (600 additional troops) and French planners are formulating contingencies for a troop increase (up to 800 troops) as well (both items via Secret Défense).Both moves represent token increases compared to the 17K Obama justannounced (12K in combat troops, 5K in support troops), although theFrench increase, if ultimately agreed to, would solidify an upcomingreorganization of French forces into a unified brigade. The increasesare also significant political gestures that reflect Obama’s politicalcapital here in Europe. So the Afghan “surge” is not a dead letter, asI’d previously speculated. (To paraphrase Rob at Arabic Media Shack, I probably should have held that thought).

Imentioned last night that despite my skepticism regarding our prospectsin Afghanistan, I’m not terribly dismayed by the news. One thing theIraq Surge taught me is that the optics of stopping the momentum ofviolence and disorder — which in Afghanistan now, as Iraq then, seemsto have approached a disastrous tipping point — is as important as thelikelihood of ultimate strategic success. There will be plenty of timeto eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, and it makes sense not to doso under duress or in the face of an obvious breakdown of our militarydeterrence. So insomuch as Obama’s move is meant to function as atemporary levee against the tide of an emboldened insurgency, one thatprovides cover for a scaling back of our objectives and priorities inAfghanistan, then it’s a good idea.

If, on the other hand, it represents the initial steps in a longterm escalation, then I’m back to being dismayed. Here’s why.

Ifyou think of the Afghanistan War as a cross-border balloon,insufficient pressure has been applied on both sides of theAfghan-Pakistani border. We’ve been half-squeezing one side of theballoon, the Pakistanis have been half-squeezing the other, and theresult has been to increase the risk of the balloon bursting on bothsides.

But for obvious reasons, the balloon bursting on thePakistani side of the border is a much worse outcome than the converse,which is why regardless of the optics, Pakistan’s periodic truces withmilitants in the FATA and now Swat, by relieving dangerous levels ofpressure, make sense. Everyone agrees that there is no militarysolution to the insurgency without an accompanying political solution.In addition to strengthened nation-building and reconstruction efforts,that has increasingly meant proposals of the same kinds of politicalaccomodations on the Afghan side of the border as Pakistan has beenmaking on its side. Which is why we should probably get used to thesekinds of deals, because we’ll in all likelihood be making a bunch ofthem in the midterm future.

Now, a lot of smarter andbetter-informed people than myself have argued that with a bolsteredmilitary presence, a stronger commitment to the political components ofcounterinsurgency, and a broader regional approach, Afghanistan can bestabilized to the point where we leave behind a viable nation statecapable of maintaining security and order for itself. I’m not sure we,or our allies, have the resources or the commitment level to achievethose goals.

But the task is further complicated by the factthat it depends on best-case scenarios on both sides of the border,whereas we only have liberty of action on one. Worse still, if wesucceed in Afghanistan, thereby applying more pressure on one side ofthe balloon, we run the risk of bursting it in Pakistan, witheverything that implies. That risk is only elevated by our “hands off,drones on” approach to counterterrorism in the Pakistani FATA, withrecent developments in Swat raising the question of just how far intoPakistani territory we’ll be willing to go to chase after Talibanmilitants.

By all indications (see Seth McLaughlin’s WPR subscription featureon Obama’s Afghanistan/Pakistan advisor, Bruce Riedel), the Obamaadministration will begin pressing Pakistan to conduct a viablefull-spectrum counterinsurgency on the Pakistani side of the border.But in the absence of one (and I’m not sure how realistic it is toplace much hope in the idea), that leaves even more accomodation asIslamabad’s only option. In essence that means we will have succeededat great cost in transferring the strategic threat posed by instabilityin Afghanistan to Pakistan, where the potential costs are far greaterand we have far less liberty of action.

There are obviousstrategic costs to Afghanistan remaining a vector of instability. Butif the cost of a stable Afghanistan is an unstable or TalibanizedPakistan, an unstable Afghanistan might be the lesser of two evils.There’s also something to be said for the idea of “managed instability”in Afghanistan, which would allow a safety valve for pressure inPakistan, while drawing the actual threat to American interests –al-Qaida — back into a country where we have some liberty of action.

Fornow, Obama has done what in many ways he had to do. The upcomingAfghanistan strategic review will reveal what he plans for the future.I’m adopting a position of guarded pessimism, with the hope that, as inIraq, I’m proven wrong.