July 17, 2009

Dueling Critiques on Afghanistan

Rambling, unscientific, and possibly inaccurate analysis from me as I try to keep up with news from Afghanistan:

It seems like the serious criticisms of the campaign increasingly fall into two main camps.  The first, which I'll term the "humanitarian camp," which argues that we're losing because our approach is too military-oriented, hasn't embraced the necessity for long-term institutional and economic development, and doesn't provide the populace with the security and services it needs.  These arguments generally come from IGO- and NGO-types who recommend reducing direct military involvement, increasing nonmilitary assistance, and (surprise) relying more on locally-based IGOs and NGOs to lead on development issues.

The other position, which I'll call the "not important camp," point out that al-Qaeda isn't really in Afghanistan anymore, argue that Afghanistan lacks intrinsic strategic importance, and emphasize the futility of "nation-building" in a country that doesn't seem to have much recent history of either nations or buildings.  This camp generally recommends avoiding a large-scale troop commitment to Afghanistan while focusing on eliminating al-Qaeda through direct action (mainly drone strikes) and improving Pakistani security and governance capacity.

Keeping in mind that I've just glossed over some differences within these general categories, I've got a couple quick thoughts:

--First, these dueling critiques actually have interesting points of agreement.  Both call for reducing the emphasis on ground troops in Afghanistan and on the general idea that we need to do a better job of letting the Afghans determine their own methods of governance.

--I find the existence of the humanitarian camp in this particular case interesting because it seemed so notably absent in the Iraq war.  A "not important" camp tends to crop up for virtually every military engagement, but not every war generates a vocal group of humanitarians like Clare Lockhart or Sarah Chayes.  The IGOs and NGOs were much more reluctant to get involved in Iraq.  Afghanistan seemingly captured the humanitarian imagination in a way that Iraq never did.  I suspect that has something to do with how the differences between how the United States entered Afghanistan and how it entered Iraq, but that's probably an incomplete explanation.

--In my view, both also tend to underestimate the danger posed by the Taliban.  A common refrain I hear is that the Taliban has limited appeal, they're fragmented, the Afghans don't want them back, they're not that strong, etc.  The humanitarian camp seems to think that IGOs and NGOs can effectively conduct reconstruction without more security by helping the population (a rather extreme take on "winning hearts and minds") while the "not important" camp seems to say, "Why are we wasting our time running around after a bunch of backward, bearded guerrillas who aren't a direct threat to us?"  While the past isn't necessarily a predictor, I do think it's important to remember that between 1994-2001, the Taliban was able to take over nearly all of the country.  Its leadership proved adept at exploiting Afghan disenchantment and religious symbolism to attract supporters, and at gaining the allegiance of numerous warlords to bolster its ranks.  Once in power, it facilitated the expansion of violent extremist groups in other Central Asian countries.  Obviously things have changed a lot since 2001, but if we were to withdraw combat troops I'm not sure what prevents that from happening again.  The Taliban is not an unstoppable army of holy warriors and they may not directly attack the United States, but I don't think we should underestimate their ability to reassert themselves in a way that undermines regional security.

--Who thinks the Obama administration's current policy is a good idea?  Stephen Biddle does, but in a very torturous, kind-of-sort-of-maybe way that suggests he himself isn't convinced of his arguments.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see of these critiques of U.S. Afghan strategy gets louder over the next few months.