Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Afghanistan Policy: "Win" or Contain?

Isn't it time we started thinking outside the box?

We all know that in modern times Afghanistan has never been successfully defeated or occupied by a foreign military force. To wit, the Brits took it on the chin in 1842 and the Russians were very badly bloodied when they attempted a similar feat nearly a century and a half later.

With the infusion of thousands of American peacemakers and a motley throng of essentially tepid NATO “allies” into Afghanistan, all of whom are committed to nation-building as well as to military victory over the Taliban, it would appear that the Hindu Kush failures which inflicted the Brits and Russians in the past may have found new victims in the 21st century.

So, I have to wonder if the war as we are now waging it is worth all the blood and treasure? More to the point, how best can we achieve our legitimate goals there?

Normally a stalwart and reliable supporter of allied intervention in Afghanistan, even Britain’s prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies is now calling for a) the withdrawal of British troops, b) shifting allied emphasis to that of targeting Al Qaeda (AQ) and its allies, and c) abandoning the elusive and probably unachievable goal of creating a viable Afghan state. Not an encouraging signal to those among us who seek “victory”, that being understood as the creation of a functional and survivable centralized authority in Kabul, a historical incongruency if ever there was one.

Then there’s the bi-partisan Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) of academics, business executives, former government officials, policy wonks and the obligatory journalists which has discussed policy options for the Obama Administration for the past year. Mindful of Henry Kissinger’s admonition that “Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces”, the ASG offered up, among others, the following observations and recommendations:

1.Even with a reduced American/allied presence, a Taliban takeover is now unlikely.
2.Smarting from their painful experience with AQ, a resurgent Taliban is very unlikely to again provide AQ “safe haven”.
3.A reduced allied military footprint would seriously hamper Taliban recruitment.
4.Hiding primarily in the northwest frontier, there are no more than 300 AQ operatives in Afghanistan who can be effectively engaged and neutralized by American special forces in theater. Thus, if eradicating AQ is the underlying objective, it can be accomplished with significantly fewer military assets and at considerably less cost.
5.Because Afghanistan has historically been fragmented and decentralized, pursuing a process of decentralization, power-sharing and political inclusion among principal Afghan parties is a more sensible course of action.
6.Since poverty can act as an incubator for terrorism, an intensive and on-going international effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy should be pursued.
7.Work toward Afghanistan’s neutrality and stability by diplomatically engaging regional and global stakeholders whose naturally competing national interests, e.g. Iran, India, Pakistan, China, will better serve to prevent Afghanistan’s being dominated by any single power, thus preventing Kabul’s exporting instability.
8.By being disproportionately focused on Afghanistan, America’s precious national assets have been diverted from its larger global security concerns like N. Korea, Iran, China and the Russian periphery (Georgia). This potentially costly and dangerous diversion of resources could easily lead to miscalculations and avoidable conflicts with which America, its deterrence capability currently diminished, is not as well prepared to deal.

Looking over the past nine years since the 9/11 terrorist attack on our homeland, one is immediately struck by the understandably enormous diversion of national assets to both prevent another devastating attack on the homeland as well as to effectively deter and root out terrorists worldwide. But if our justification for a significant diversion of resources to wage war in Afghanistan is to prevent AQ’s using Afghanistan as a platform to launch more attacks on the American heartland, that rationalization seems to have become increasingly hollow.

To wit, AQ’s offensive capability has been effectively crippled by our relentless worldwide anti-terrorist regime which, of course, ought to continue. Clearly, however, any future terrorist attacks can now be carried out by either remnants of AQ itself or by their allied organizations in Yemen or Somalia. Thus, the faulty rationale for our dedication of inordinately costly military and economic assets in Afghanistan.

And as George Friedman of Real Clear World recently and incisively posited, “9/11…cannot be permitted to define the totality of national strategy; terrorist attacks will occur [but] the world’s only global power cannot be captive to this single threat; the United States should have a global view and support a balance-of-power strategy [in the subcontinent and worldwide].”

In effect, Mr. Freidman is saying that since preventing terrorist attacks which cannot by their very nature be entirely prevented despite every conceivable counter measure, that, therefore, fighting terrorism should not be, as it has become, the centerpiece of American foreign policy.

He goes on to point out that taking ruthless advantage of the Islamic world’s internal rivalries should be a central component of our nation’s balance-of-power strategy to suppress the threat of Islamic militancy. To my ears, these thoughtful words ring acutely sensible.

The threats to peace posed by a resurgent China, an expansionist Russia, a destabilizing Venezuela, and a nuclear armed Iran and N. Korea are every bit as threatening—if not more so--to our national security as are any looming terrorist threats. Thus, perhaps a more rational and balanced blueprint going forward should, in fact, entail a carefully crafted, steady and measurable drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, an uptick in sustained international economic development assistance there, and the deft application of a time-honored balance-of-power strategy involving our expediently playing off one regional power against another in order to safeguard Afghanistan’s stability, and, by extension, Pakistan’s decidedly vulnerable nuclear arsenal as well.

Of course, the goal of this strategy would be to achieve stability in Afghanistan, thereby allowing a diversion of precious American military and economic assets to more effectively deter potential opponents and conflicts around the world.

In short, our core national interests, and not our narrow focus on managing the terrorist threat alone, should necessarily dictate America’s foreign policy in the years to come. I believe that our acting on this cogent approach would prove to be a thoroughly and refreshingly America-first exercise in hard core realpolitik.

But is our liberal-dominated and insufferably self-absorbed Administration who is more interested in protection on the cheap and ill-conceived exit strategies capable of adopting such a sophisticated, mature and pragmatic Machiavellian approach in its foreign policy? I very seriously doubt it. Parochial domestic interests and shortsighted ideology vs clear-headed pragmatism and common sense seem destined to forever shape Obama’s courses of action at every level and in every sphere. So, it looks like it is now left to the next Commander-in-Chief to get us on the road to a more rational containment approach in Afghanistan. And with that end in mind, we can’t get to 2012 soon enough.