The Reality of Afghanistan

I mentioned last week that France is facing severe budgetary pressureson its military deployments abroad. In the last few days, PrimeMinister François Fillon and Defense Minister Hervé Morin have announced the goal of reducing foreign deployments, now numbering 13000troops, by roughly 20 percent, or 3000 troops.

So far, thecuts announced have been in African missions that are largely completed(Ivory Coast) or that will be relieved by the UN (Chad, where 600 outof 1800 French troops will remain). In addition, the two navy vesselsdeployed to the UNIFIL maritime mission in Lebanon are being removed,although it’s not clear if they will be redeployed to patrol the Gazacoast as part of the smuggling prevention operation.

The twomissions that won’t be touched are the deployments in southern Lebanonand Afghanistan. For the latter, though, “won’t be touched” also meansno additional troops either, as Morin announced last week and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner just confirmed.

It could be that, asSecretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested, there’s some available Europeancapacity that’s being saved for when President Obama asks for it. Indeed, the 3000 French troops from Africa might very well be a rabbit that French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to pull out of his hat at the NATO summit in April. But I doubt it, and it’sunlikely that whatever is available will amount to the kinds of substantial deploymentsthat are being called for to stabilize the situation there.

Thegood news is that this is beginning to dawn on the Obama administration, which might shift their emphasis to more realisticrequests like police training missions, to which the Euopeans would bemore likely to respond favorably. There also seems to be some walkingback of the Afghanistan rhetoric, with suggestions that the 30000additional troops soon to be deployed might not have as open-ended amission as at first suggested, and could well be limited to a surgedesigned to ensure security for the upcoming Afghan elections.

Thebad news is that those elections have now been postponed to August, orthree months after President Hamid Karzai’s term of office expires.That led the leader of the United Front, the opposition bloc controlling a third ofthe seats in the Afghan parliament, to charge that Karzai’s government –already losing favor at home and abroad over widespread allegations ofcorruption — will no longer be constitutionally legitimate. You don’thave to be a made member of the COIN mafia to know thatcounterinsurgency + an illegitimate indigenous government = fuhgeddaboudit.

There’s an intense amount of debate right now about how to address themilitary situation in Afghanistan. Were our resources limitless andcounterinsurgency predictable, I imagine that ratcheting up our trooppresence would make sense. But while everyone agrees that the militaryapproach must be backed up by reconstruction efforts and governanceinitiatives (increasing targeted towards local authorities), very fewhave questioned how realistic our goals in Afghanistan really are. In aNY Times blog roundtable from a few days back, Andrew Exum had this tosay:

We can succeed in Afghanistan if we are willingto commit the resources necessary to do so. But the cost of successmight involve another few thousand United States combat deaths and morethan a trillion dollars in spending. And “success” means creating acountry in Central Asia on par with Chad or Bangladesh in terms ofdevelopment and stability. Will it be worth it?

Exum, though, might be doing a disservice to Bangladesh.

PresidentObama seems to be taking stock of this situation very deliberately. Butthe people who have his ear are those most supportive of anescalation. It will also be very hard to resist those arguments, and even harder to do so while holding firm to his withdrawal timetable in Iraq, without creating tensions between him and his military command. But here’s hoping he does, because for all the consequences we might face for leaving Afghanistan now, there’s a very real risk we’ll face as bad or worse even after we’ve incurred the costs Exum suggests are necessary.

More World Politics Review