Thursday, March 19, 2009

AfPak: Two visions for the future US strategy

Things on the American front are sure coming hot and heavy:

1) Bipartisan senators:
Our Must-Win War
The 'Minimalist' Path Is Wrong for Afghanistan

Later this month, the Obama administration will unveil a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. This comes as most important indicators in Afghanistan are pointing in the wrong direction. President Obama's decision last month to deploy an additional 17,000 U.S. troops was an important step in the right direction, but a comprehensive overhaul of our war plan is needed, and quickly.

As the administration finalizes its policy review, we are troubled by calls in some quarters for the president to adopt a "minimalist" approach toward Afghanistan [see here for the other view]. Supporters of this course caution that the American people are tired of war and that an ambitious, long-term commitment to Afghanistan may be politically unfeasible. They warn that Afghanistan has always been a "graveyard of empires" and has never been governable. Instead, they suggest, we can protect our vital national interests in Afghanistan even while lowering our objectives and accepting more "realistic" goals there -- for instance, by scaling back our long-term commitment to helping the Afghan people build a better future in favor of a short-term focus on fighting terrorists.

The political allure of such a reductionist approach is obvious. But it is also dangerously and fundamentally wrong, and the president should unambiguously reject it. Let there be no doubt: The war in Afghanistan can be won. Success -- a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary -- can be achieved. Just as in Iraq, there is no shortcut to success, no clever "middle way" that allows us to achieve more by doing less. A minimalist approach in Afghanistan is a recipe not for winning smarter but for losing slowly at tremendous cost in American lives, treasure and security.

Yes, our vital national interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from once again becoming a haven for terrorists to plan attacks against America and U.S. allies. But achieving this narrow counterterrorism objective requires us to carry out a far broader set of tasks, the foremost of which are protecting the population, nurturing legitimate and effective governance, and fostering development. In short, we need a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency approach backed by greatly increased resources and an unambiguous U.S. political commitment to success in Afghanistan over the long haul.

A narrow, short-term focus on counterterrorism, by contrast, would repeat the mistakes made for years in Iraq before the troop surge, with the same catastrophic consequences. Before 2007 in Iraq, U.S. Special Forces had complete freedom of action to strike at terrorist leaders, backed by more than 120,000 conventional American forces and overwhelming air power. Although we succeeded in killing countless terrorists -- including the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- the insurgency continued to grow in strength and violence. It was not until we changed course and applied a new approach -- a counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing basic security for the people and improving their lives -- that the cycle of violence was at last broken...

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama called Afghanistan "the war we must win." He was absolutely right. Now it is time to win it -- and we and many other members of both political parties stand ready to give him our full support in this crucial fight.

John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, was the 2008 Republican nominee for president. Joe Lieberman, an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut, was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000.
2) An Australian adviser to the US (via David Ignatius):
Road Map for Afghanistan

Last October, the Bush administration arranged a briefing for aides to Barack Obama and John McCain on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Among the expert advisers was David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency guru who had been one of the architects of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq.

"We said the situation was extremely difficult in Afghanistan, with a security crisis and a political crisis occurring at the same time," Kilcullen remembers. Obama had been talking on the campaign trail as if Afghanistan's problems could be fixed by adding more U.S. troops. The briefing was a wake-up call that the next president would face some agonizing policy decisions.

Now President Obama is in the final stages of his strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Kilcullen, meanwhile, has just published a book that distills the advice he has been offering to the White House (Bush and Obama, both) and to Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander. The book, "The Accidental Guerrilla," offers the clearest road map I've seen for moving ahead in Afghanistan.

Obama's policy choices for Afghanistan are usually presented in stark terms: Either he authorizes a major new escalation, well beyond the 17,000 additional troops he has already approved, or he scales back the mission to a narrower counterterrorism effort aimed at preventing al-Qaeda from mounting attacks.

Kilcullen argues that either of these extreme options would be a mistake. "It would be the height of folly to commit to a large-scale escalation now," when the political climate in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan is so uncertain. We should use the extra 17,000 troops to stabilize the situation but delay the big decision about escalation until after Afghanistan's presidential election in August.

Kilcullen understands the mix of political and military factors that drives the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And although he made his name as the strategist of Petraeus's troop surge, Kilcullen is actually quite cautious about using military power to combat Islamic militants. He argues in the book that Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq was "an extremely serious strategic error" and that the United States "should avoid such interventions wherever possible, simply because the costs are so high and the benefits so doubtful." But once we're in, there's no easy exit.

The problem in these small wars is that U.S. military power creates a backlash that fuels even more violence. This conundrum is expressed in Kilcullen's title, "The Accidental Guerrilla." Most of the people we ended up fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't start with any major grievance against the United States. They were drawn into the fight almost by accident, as they reacted to American efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and other Muslim foes...

Kilcullen argues that the Obama administration can gradually stabilize Afghanistan using the same combination of political and military power that Petraeus used in Iraq. The right strategy is to remove the "accidental" combatants from the battlefield -- by negotiating with them, buying them off, sharing power with them or just ignoring them. At the same time, the United States must ruthlessly pursue its deadly adversaries in al-Qaeda and separate them from the Afghan population. Above all, Obama must avoid creating a backlash in neighboring Pakistan by heavy-handed U.S. military intervention there [emphasis added].

Obama inherits a messy war in Afghanistan. Kilcullen's advice, as I read him, consists of three "don'ts." Don't do it again; don't make it worse by overescalation; don't think you can pull out now without damaging U.S. interests. For Obama, that means a measured commitment, somewhere between a major escalation and a minimal force.
Perhaps not all that different from the senators' view.


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