Which Afghanistan War Are We Fighting?

One thing that’s clear, reading through the press briefings and interviews given by returning members of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 60-day strategic review, is that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is depressingly alarming or alarmingly depressing, take your pick. Both Andrew Exum and Stephen Biddle are in the “hard but not hopeless” camp, but came back with more of the former than the latter to report. And Anthony Cordesman, whose real-time thinking comes out in paragraph form, was downright brutal in his assessment of where things stand. Cordesman thinks the war is winnable, but that we must come to terms with what winning will mean:

When we talk about winning, we are not talking about transforming Afghanistan into some mirror image of the West or accelerating to the point where it becomes a developed country within the foreseeable future. We’re talking about basic security, basic stability, basic economic opportunity for the Afghans and creating a country which will be free of international terrorism.

Cordesman closed with about as chilling a conclusion as I’ve heard on the subject to date: “If we pursue a dream, we will lose the war.”

So much for what’s clear. What’s less clear is what war we stand to win or lose. It’s a confusion shared by Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman, and dates back to when the Obama administration rolled out its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. At the time, the strategic objective was defined as eliminating al-Qaida’s ability to use sanctuaries in Pakistan to target the U.S. The tactical method was identified as a counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, combined with pressure on Pakistan to crack down on safe havens in the FATA. In other words, a counterinsurgency approach to a counterterrorism mission.

What we’ve seen since Gen. McChrystal’s appointment to command the U.S. and Coalition war effort, though, is a steady refocusing of tactical priorities to counterinsurgency, not as CT, but as nation-building. Cohen has been calling it mission creep, but I’d say it more closely resembles a bait and switch. When pressed over who the enemy in Afghanistan is, for instance, Cordesman very candidly responded:

[W]hen I say you defeat the insurgency, I’m not talking about al-Qaida; it isn’t present in any organized way. . . .

. . . We need to be a lot more honest, strategically, too, about centers and sanctuaries. We are watching problems build up in Yemen and Somalia. There is no one focal point of this kind of international terrorism. So when you ask about the broader campaign, was it misleading to put all of it in al-Qaida in Pakistan and focus on that? Yes. I don’t know of anyone in the intelligence community who would take that position seriously. Is it politically convenient? Yes. Is it realistic? No.

Significantly, this is the first of the many Afghanistan reviews that relied principally on independent civilian analysts (although as Ackerman noted, none of them are Afghanistan specialists). In other words, notwithstanding the professionalism of all those involved, message discipline is beyond the administration’s and the military’s control. And what’s trickling out is that with a significant increase in resources, we might achieve minimalist stabilization goals in Afghanistan that, it is hoped, will indirectly damage al-Qaida’s operational capacity, which itself is located elsewhere. That is not the Afghanistan War as it was originally declared in 2001, and bears only a surface resemblance to the Obama administration’s rebranding of it in March.

When someone like Cordesman says that we can achieve a more limited set of goals in Afghanistan, provided we invest more resources, I believe him. Joshua Foust, for instance, has written often about the large body of relevant knowledge we have to work with after eight years in Afghanistan, some of which includes approaches that actually work. But even assuming Cordesman is right, I’m not convinced of the strategic necessity of the mission.

What has made Foust increasingly pessimistic of late about achieving even minimalist goals is that instead of using the most prescious resource we have in Afghanistan — namely, our experience — we essentially fail to follow up on successes and repeat mistakes. Nothing from what I’m reading now convinces me that this time will necessarily be any different.

What’s more disconcerting is that, from top to bottom — that is, from the strategic objectives to the tactial methods — our approach to this war seems like a tangle of contradictions and confusion. And that’s mainly because, eight years in, we still have not determined what war we’re fighting. Which means we’re unlikely to win the war we find ourselves in.