What’s at Stake in Afghanistan

The debate over the Afghanistan War is now swirling around in a few different directions, with the primary focus in recent weeks being on short-term options and the Obama administration’s process for policy development and implementation. That’s understandable, given, on the one hand, the urgency of the situation on the ground — as reported by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his strategic review, and independently by the analysts who advised him in the preparation of that document — and on the other, the Obama administration’s “sticker shock” when presented with the resources needed to wage its stated strategy of a counterinsurgency approach to counterterrorism.

But in many ways, that focus on the immediate obscures the long-term significance of what’s being decided this week. The irony of the Bush administration’s decision to militarize the War on Terror is that it has essentially “demilitarized” the Army used to prosecute it. In first Iraq and now Afghanistan — the Long War’s primary theaters of operation — the Army has moved towards what amounts to the heavy gendarmerie operational model of COIN. And hidden in the current debate over the Afghanistan War is another, more significant debate over whether or not that is desirable.

Here, Matthew Yglesias is right when he says that this latter debate actually consists of two others. The first concerns the question, Does COIN work? That is, Does it offer the best chance of pacifying Afghanistan in order to expand governance that is also perceived as legitimate by those governed? The honest answer is that we don’t know, because many of its major assumptions (protect the population, establish the host government’s legitimacy) were specific to Iraq, where the civilian population was much more a target, and a greater national infrastrucure already existed. As I’ve written before, my feeling is that the Army’s embrace of COIN represents an advance for progressives, because it returns war to the political, as opposed to the technological, arena, and puts a greater operational emphasis on minimizing loss of life and destruction. My problem with it is that it treats social cohesion in the midst of a civil war as a problem that can be solved methodically — that is, as a science — when in even the best of circumstances, it is an alchemy.

The second debate concerns the question, Does COIN correspond to our broader, long-term strategic interests or is it just a way to get out of the wars we’re currently in? In other words, is the long-term threat we should be preparing for the Taliban or China? And if both are threats, is there a way to “win” against both in Afghanistan? Here, Robert Kaplan says no, and Thomas P.M. Barnett says maybe.

Barnett is arguing from a distribution of labor point of view: We’ve got the firepower, China’s got the cash and the demographics. It will take both to stabilize the zones of non-governance that have yet to be integrated into the rule set of the globalized economy. And by taking the project on together we can develop the kind of strategic partnership with China that will reduce the chances of conflict between us. I like Barnett’s optimist vision of a non-zero-sum game, which is part of why I look forward to editing his column every week. It’s certainly a better outcome for the U.S. and China. The problem, of course, is convincing the Afghans that it’s also a better outcome for them.

Another problem is that in Afghanistan, Kaplan’s still talking about what Andrew Sullivan paraphrased as “the race to win the 21st century.” And as always in wartime, it has become commonplace to hear that “losing is not an option.” It is unrealistic to expect differently, especially from the military, which is trained not to raise its shoulders and shrug, but rather to find ways to accomplish the objectives identified by the civilian command. But no military commander would voluntarily divest himself of the option of tactical retreat. Why, then, are we demanding that the civilian command do so?

An alternative to the “Taliban or China” conundrum is that neither the Taliban nor China necessarily represent threats. Instead, both are non-military problem sets, with only the ideological die-hards like al-Qaida representing problems that are solvable kinetically. If so, perhaps “losing” the war we’re in is a more cost-effective way to get out of it, so that we might better position ourselves to win that race for the 21st century. Here, Barnett says no, and Kaplan says maybe.

Certainly, it would come with costs. But even in the worst-case scenario — al-Qaida’s return to Afghanistan for use as a safe haven — it’s hard to imagine, as Michael Wahid Hanna noted in an e-mail, that we would be unable to adjust accordingly. To argue as much is to argue that we are in a far worse situation now than what we faced in October 2001, when a well-armed Taliban controlled most of the country, and al-Qaida was securely ensconced in its training camps. Of course, eight years ago we were able to drive both out of Afghanistan using very limited resources. There’s no reason to believe we would not be able to do the same in the event that al-Qaida re-establishes itself there.

Barnett’s project of expanding order and connectivity into the globalized world’s frontiers is a multi-generational one. That means there will be time enough to gather our strength and build the necessary partnerships to do so — not on the ad hoc and stop-gap basis that is now the case, but in a measured and calculated way more likely to achieve success.

In the meantime, it is time to put all the options back on the table. And that includes considering whether it is in our interest to gradually reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, marshall our resources and figure out a better way to turn the race for the 21st century into a win-win affair for everyone.