The Uncertain Alchemy of Afghanistan

A few weeks back, I considered running an experiment here on the blog, where for a certain period of time, I would actually defend positions that were the opposite of my own. The idea was to challenge my own assumptions by adopting the point of view of haduJ — the anti-Judah that exists in some alternate reversed-pole universe.

I increasingly wish I could say that my endorsement of an Afghanistan troop surge, even with all the caveats I put on the idea, is part of that experiment. But I wouldn’t do that sort of thing without announcing it first, and so it isn’t.

As I mentioned in the Bloggingheads spot I did with Michael Cohen, I’m aware that part of what I find most tempting about the COIN approach — its methodology — is also what is most unrealistic about it. This article describing the emerging consensus in the Obama administration for how to proceed — COIN in the cities, CT in the country — sounds great on paper. But Afghanistan is more than a map, and everything will depend on how it’s operationalized. And the thorny challenges posed by the actual terrain of Afghanistan and its insurgency, in addition to the more abstract challenges of counterinsurgency in general, remain formidable.

The U.S. Army, like all organizations, is also not immune to the human propensity for error and inefficiencies, which on the battlefield results in what Clausewitz called “friction.” As attractive as COIN might be when parroted at the command level, it will be carried out on the ground by fallible young men and women in impossibly difficult circumstances. This article about Ahmed Wali Karzai being a CIA asset is another good example, illustrating how unity of effort in Afghanistan is non-existent within the U.S. interagency approach, let alone within the NATO mission. So, like the civilian surge, yet another component essential to success in Afghanistan that does not exist.

Andrew Exum identified a tendency in Afghanistan war critics that I think applies to all sides in the debate, namely the selectivity with which we brandish expert opinion. In challenging my own pessimism about the chances for success in Afghanistan, I was in effect trying to reset the filters I’ve been using to discriminate between what amount to conflicting reports of comparable authority.

But I find myself no more convinced on this side of the line than I was last week on the other. And I’m inclined to believe that anyone who is convinced one way or the other is not fully engaged with the very real uncertainties we face in trying to determine a least-worst way forward.

I continue to believe that in the uncertain alchemy that will determine outcomes in Afghanistan, atime-bounded troop increase could contribute to unexpectedly positive results. I also continue to believe that in the interests of an exit strategy, a time-bounded troop increase would provide the political cover necessary, both domestically and internationally, for President Barack Obama to minimize the costs of withdrawing from Afghanistan. That, I believe, remains the most realistic path to drawing down this war.

That’s pretty thin gruel as far as defending an argument goes, I know. But that’s about all I can, in good faith, muster.