Winning the War Fought in the Wrong Location (While Still Losing the Peace)
Freddie thinks that those (like Reihan) who are nervous about new so-called modest (or lowered) expectations should be. Br. F-reddie also raises an question of feasibility of non-lowered expectations given Afghan history. (Also check out ED’s important comment regarding the volatility of democracy in societies without rule of law, culture of transparency, less black market economics, and the like).
Reihan’s post was in response to a post by Andrew Sullivan responding to this post by Christian Brose in Foreign Policy (on the Shadow Gov’t Blog). Brose’s piece is a classic in the well-written and thought out but potentially missing the trees for the continent kinda thing. Brose discusses the recent Munich Security Conference and details what came out of the Conference (in helpful numbered points). The only problem is he never asks whether the CW coming out of the Munish Security Conference is you know right or not. Whether it’s you no realistically doable or not.
On a trip that left me more optimistic than I had been initially, one concern I take away is the tension that might emerge between Obama and Petraeus if the former wants to trim his sails and focus more on killing terrorists in Afghanistan while the latter wants to expand his efforts to foster population security. Not only would this be a tragic and detrimental outcome, it would be an ironic one: The general who Bush tapped in Iraq to jettison a losing counterterrorism approach in favor of a winning counterinsurgency strategy becoming the general who falls out of favor with Obama because he doesn’t want to do the reverse in Afghanistan.
First off the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq wasn’t exactly winning. As even COIN Jedi Master Abu Muqawama pointed out, if the surge failed politically then it failed period. Do or do not, there is no succeeded militarily but failed politically Young Skywalker. That’s a very relevant point bringing us back to Freddie’s concern given Afghan politicaly history. i.e. One could easily imagine a scenario whereby some population-centric surge equivalent takes place in Afghanistan, with a potential Sunni Anbar-like pay off some of the Afghan Tribes tactic, that we hear “succeded militarily” but Afghanistan’s political reality does not much change. Or changes only to the “lowered expectations” Obama camp mindset.
And what should in my mind be of even more concern to the anti-modest expectations crowd is this post from one of my all-time favorite bloggers China Hand, pointing out that (unfortuantely for the best laid plans of Afghanistan lowered or unlowered), the real war is now in Pakistan. Read the whole thing as they say, but here’s a crucial graf (my italics):
There appears to be a major disconnect between U.S. and Pakistani strategies for dealing with the Taliban’s entrenched presence and its increasing reach into non-Pashtun areas. Pending a review by the Obama administration, the U.S. considers the battles in west Pakistan an adjunct to the faltering Afghan adventure. As I argued elsewhere, this is a fatal misreading of the facts on the ground and ranks as a strategic blunder of historical portions.
It turns out the war against the Taliban is a counterinsurgency operation across the entire Pashtun ethnic area, on both sides of the Durand Line that arbitrarily splits the Pashtun homeland into Afghan and Pakistani jurisdictions, and in which the Taliban have discovered that their key bulwark against NATO and U.S. operations is, unsurprisingly, the Pakistan side.
This is the real nightmare scenario. Having won a quick war in Afghanistan in 2001 and bungling the post-war “peace” or “occupation” by failing to build a nation-state, that ship has passed. Obviously letting OBL escape across the mountains was bad enough, but there was no way given the earlier Bonn Conference that the Pashtun could be basically completely left out of the Karzai government.
That ship has sailed and while I think there was potentially a chance to pull something of value off in say 2001-2003, that ship has sailed I think. And it ain’t coming back. And here’s why.
As even Reihan alludes to, you would have to re-jigger the entire regional apparatus in which Afghanistan has always been a pawn (sadly) in the regional power player game. Simultaneous to drawing down from Iraq and having to do with the coming level of violence and chaos that will likely result from that “gamble (scroll down half way on page).”
After (or concurrent to) having perfectly handled the complicated Iraq drawdown, plus resetting the entire political structure of Central and Southwest Asia, and building a nation-state among the 2nd poorest nation on earth during the Greatest Financial Crisis since the Great Depression as the entire monetary order that has guided the liberalized world since 1973 comes crumbling down, and then and only then fight the real war in a country with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons which have ended nation-state to nation-state warfare leaving only these insurgent groups that create some much havoc in the world. And somehow bring the Pashtun people into political representative reality on both sides of the border–while Afghanistan and Pakistan currently have less than pleasant relations.
I just don’t see a way to work around the Taliban’s veto. There’s no winning the peace at this point in Afghanistan (and the fact that people like Brose and more importantly the NATO folk at Munich still look at the situation through a war lens doesn’t leave me feeling any better) but there may be I suppose a scenario whereby total collapse is averted. And some strongman or stronger man than Karzai is installed. Given the rife ethnic histories I’m not so sure that’s possible. But even if it were, what about Pakistan? Not one of Brose’s 6 points is directly related to Pakistan which for me is really telling.
Update I: The insufferable Fred Kagan has a piece up in Newsweek apropos this topic. Total Larison Bait. An absolute underhanded softball waiting for Daniel to blast it outta the park.
Just three months ago, Afghanistan was the “good” war. It was, according to all the conventional wisdom, the “real” central front in the war on terror, the war we had to win, the place to fight Al Qaeda, and the war we should have been focusing on all along. Nothing much has changed in Afghanistan since Barack Obama won the election, but conventional wisdom is swinging fast to the opposite viewpoint.
And begins its precipitous decline from there.