The Surging Afghanistan Surge

Joshua Foust argues at Registan that far from being a novel or promising step, Hamid Karzai’s recent offer to engage the Taliban in negotiations was a repeat performance and a sign of electoral desperation. He also argues that until we regain the initiative in the war effort, any negotiations with the Taliban will be a sign of overall weakness.

That strikes me as about right, although I wonder whether we ought not think twice about the actual weakness that the oft-cited signs of weakness signal. Especially since our NATO allies are signalling that they’re on board for signalling weakness, which they refer to as a political — as opposed to a military — solution to the conflict, but which roughly translated from the Euro-speak means trying to come to some sort of mutually acceptable arrangement with the guys shooting at you.

The tell, though, is in the formulation of strategy as signalling, and as far as I can make out, the game plan for Afghanistan will roughly resemble what worked in Iraq, namely applying a temporary military buildup (.pdf) — the number being bandied about now is eight brigades and up to 40,000 more troops — in order to achieve the minimum level of security necessary to declare victory and leave. (That minimum level, following an initial significant downturn, subsequently depends in great part on image and optics.)

Oddly enough, when formulated like that, though, I find the proposition less alarming than the talk of stabilizing Afghanistan and the need to win the war, because I think that creating a narrative (a central component of Gen. Petraeus’ COIN doctrin) whereby America’s military prestige survives the war is a worthwhile objective. It’s also a far more achievable objective than what has previously been proposed.

If things play out favorably, that means that towards the end of 2010, the Obama administration could be signing in Kabul the same kind of document just signed in Baghdad, while managing the preliminaries to America’s ultimate withdrawal from Iraq. If the timelines remain the same, that means he could be campaigning in 2012 on a platform of having successfully drawn down both wars, while essentially washing America’s hands of the longterm consequences of the interventions.

And while those longterm consequences will most likely bear little resemblance to our current strategic goals, it’s important to remember, too, that they could ultimately be benign or even advantageous to American interests. Post-conflict scenarios are hard to predict, especially over the longterm. As an illustration, who would have thought at the time of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia or at the height of the Vietnam boat people crisis that just fifteen years later we’d be normalizing relations with Hanoi in a largely stabilized region?

The longterm future will most likely surprise us in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But the shortterm plan looks increasingly decided.