The Afghanistan Illusion

The question of what to do in Afghanistan (and alongside it, Pakistan), is beginning to get the attention it deserves. So far, the default answer is converging on sending more troops, with little real thought as to where they’ll come from and the resulting problems that will cause. Some will apparently be cycled in from a drawdown in Iraq. But the Iraq drawdown, as formulated so far, is going to come at a snail’s pace, with the possibility of it being halted or reversed as conditions on the ground dictate.

Barack Obama fleetingly addressed the issue in his Berlin speech when he discussed the need for NATO countries to increase their troop commitments. But that, too, presents problems. To begin with, political problems in the three countries (England, Germany and France) potentially capable of answering the call. The difficulty these countries will have in “selling” the Afghanistan War to their public opinion will only escalate with the rise in casualties any increased engagement will entail. (The reaction in French opinion to the recent deaths of ten soldiers in a Taliban ambush is a case in point.)

Secondly, interoperability problems, since one of the Achilles’ Heels of multilateral operations is the challenges presented by conflicting rules of engagement and doctrinal approaches to the conflict engaged. That’s already the case in Afghanistan, and will only be complicated by the kind of double down now being called for.

Finally, there’s the problem of military preparedness. The British military is already stretched from its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The French army is deployed in various peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Africa and Lebanon that in combination have put a heavy logistical strain on its military that already faces budgetary constraints. In order to deploy the 700 additional troops it committed to Afghanistan, the French Army was forced to to turn to foreign suppliers in extremis for everything from up-armored personnel carriers to radio transmitters. That’s in addition to requisitioning pistols from the national Gendarmerie, and up-armored personnel carriers from its contingent in southern Lebanon.

One of the foundations of America’s strategic culture is that once a conflict has been embraced by the public, no limits are placed on the means and resources that the military needs to engage it. It’s an assumption that’s based on the massively disproportionate wealth and prosperity America has always enjoyed compared to its enemies, but also to it’s allies.

America has the means to conduct the Long War against vectors of instability that harbor extremism, of which Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas are now the principle theatres. Some questions still remain as to whether the political will can be maintained for the duration of what is certain to be a series of limited engagements with periodic spikes in casualties, the very sort of conflict American public opinion is historically averse to.

Our European allies, on the other hand, have neither the former nor the latter. An American troop buildup there will almost certainly lead, not to a concomitant European buildup, but to a European drawdown, especially if the conflict is widened into the Pakistani frontier by unilateral American operations. It’s also important to remember, and the Russian-Georgian conflict serves as a timely reminder, that the entire strategic calculation of the Long War comes in the absence of any other conventional threats. Keeping in mind that it’s always easier to start a war than to finish one, these are the sorts of things that should be part of the Afghanistan debate.