Worst Case Scenarios for Afghanistan

Rob over at Arabic Media Shack makes two good points, one strategic and one political, regarding my earlier post on France and Afghanistan, which I neglected to make in focusing on the financial and material constraints facing our European allies with regards to troop increases:

Looking at this from the French perspective, it’s hard for me to see whyit’s in French interests to send troops to Afghanistan. If the U.S. shipis sinkingin Afghanistan, as many are saying, why should France jumpon board, given their long-term interest in maintaining a globalforeign policy independent of the United States? Furthermore,US-Europe relations during Bush term II (and especially with Francesince Sarkozy took over) weren’t nearly as bad as the media sometimesportrays, so it’s not as if France feels any urgent incentive to makesome gesture to the U.S. on Afghanistan. Or even to “repair relations.”

To unpack these in reverse order, the idea that somehow transatlantic relations are in disrepair or need intensive care is simply not true. With the exception of Berlusconi II and Putin the sequel, European leadership has renewed itself since the nadir of 2003. The Bush administration has done a decent job of finding ways to work with the reshuffled deck, and above all, the rearguard action of Madame Rice and Monsieur Gates to restore American diplomacy was very well-received across the continent, even if policy differences remained. So in that respect, Obama got a headstart on improved relations, but so did Europe. And although there’s a lot of political capital to be gained from a close working relationship with Obama, the transatlantic agenda has a decent number of thorny issues on it, and Europe has every reason to hold out for its interests. (See Soeren Kern’s WPR Briefing.)

But the other point that Rob touches on only obliquely is that while the assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan is universally gloomy, the prognosis for how they will turn out is markedly more pessimistic among European strategic planners and general staff than it is across the pond. Even with a revamped COIN strategy that boosts not only the security component, but also the reconstruction and political (read: negotiations with those insurgents who will silence their guns) components that Europe has been calling for over the past few years now, the sense is that it’s too little, too late.

Maybe I’m being a bit too clever here, but could that be the reason that Russia just agreed to allow us to supply the Afghanistan effort through its land routes, and lifted objections to Central Asian routes as well? Russia certainly has an interest in a stable Afghanistan. But those routes will go a long way to making the impending U.S. troop escalation feasible, and I, for one, find the idea of Russia holding open the door to Afghanistan while beckoning us to enter a bit sobering.

Joshua Foust (a WPR contributor who happens to be on his way to Afghanistan, so, Safe travels, Josh) is a pretty vocal critic of the Afghanistan War strategy to date — to say nothing of the reporting on the War. But he also guardedly believes that it can be turned around with a sound approach, and offered this bullet point list (cribbed from here) for what failure in Afghanistan would mean:

* The coalition crumbles, leaving the U.S. and Britain to fight alone. Reconstruction grinds to a halt.
* Debilitated by its failure, NATO shrinks to irrelevance. Fireworks in Moscow.
* Faced with a fight to the death, the Kabul government chooses engagement with the Taleban instead.
* The Taleban kills everyone else and seizes power.
* Military coup in Pakistan.
* Al-Qaida hits Europe and America.
* Supported by an international coalition, the U.S. starts a bombingcampaign to topple the Taleban. Osama bin Laden escapes.

Now, I’ve always been pretty skeptical of the apocalyptic gloom and doom scenarios used to argue against leaving Afghanistan in a state that’s not altogether that different from how we found it (i.e. an unpopular but tolerated regime installed by the security and intelligence services of a foreign power, that controls parts of the country while engaged in a civil war in others). So I’m going to offer my own version of the bullet point list above:

* The coalition crumbles, leaving the U.S. and Britain to withdraw shortly thereafter. Reconstruction grinds to a halt.
* Chastened by its failure, NATO sharpens its strategic identity and redefines its mission spectrum, facilitating increased cooperation with Moscow.
* Faced with a fight to the death, the Kabul government chooses engagement with the Taleban instead.
* The Taleban kills everyone else and seizes power.
* In the absence of American pressure to pacify the FATA, Pakistan no longer finds itself in a double bind that made it the target of religious militants. With the threat of Indian penetration into Afghanistan gone, the civilian government in Islamabad is more able to engage New Delhi without the ISI getting bent out of shape.
* Targeted special forces operations and reinforced counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S., EU and Russia continue to contain al-Qaida as a threat.
* Supported by an international coalition, the U.S. starts a campaign to invest in reconstruction and development work throughout the region. Osama bin Laden becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Of course, there’s no way to argue that my scenario is any more likely than Josh’s. But I wonder if it really is any less likely. My hunch is that, between Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama correctly believes that getting our military disengaged from the former is more essential to American interests than the latter, and that he believes he can’t do that without the political cover of escalating in Afghanistan. My hope is that he’ll shift gears and instead try to manage the tactical retreat from both. It could be that this year’s mini-surge is simply a way to buy some time. But hopefully he’ll listen a bit more to our European allies before diving into a fullscale escalation. After all, they haven’t been that far off in the past.

Note: Updated for clarity.