November 26, 2007

Slipping in Afghanistan

If there is good news to report from Iraq these days, the situation in Afghanistan grows worse. Last week, a think tank reported the Taliban could re-take Kabul if it desired. And while Abu Muqawama thinks that's a bit alarmist -- enjoying unconventional success in rural areas does not translate into the conventional abilities necessary to march on the capital through a hail of NATO air strikes -- he does think it is significant the U.S. national security community is increasingly honest about its failures. Take this piece from the front page of yesterday's Washington Post:

A White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan has concluded that wide-ranging strategic goals that the Bush administration set for 2007 have not been met, even as U.S. and NATO forces have scored significant combat successes against resurgent Taliban fighters, according to U.S. officials.

The evaluation this month by the National Security Council followed an in-depth review in late 2006 that laid out a series of projected improvements for this year, including progress in security, governance and the economy. But the latest assessment concluded that only "the kinetic piece" -- individual battles against Taliban fighters -- has shown substantial progress, while improvements in the other areas continue to lag, a senior administration official said.

This judgment reflects sharp differences between U.S. military and intelligence officials on where the Afghan war is headed. Intelligence analysts acknowledge the battlefield victories, but they highlight the Taliban's unchallenged expansion into new territory, an increase in opium poppy cultivation and the weakness of the government of President Hamid Karzai as signs that the war effort is deteriorating.

The contrasting views echo repeated internal disagreements over the Iraq war: While the military finds success in a virtually unbroken line of tactical achievements, intelligence officials worry about a looming strategic failure.


Although growing numbers of foreigners -- primarily Pakistanis -- are joining the Taliban ranks, several officials said the primary source of new recruits remains disaffected Afghans fearful of opposing the Taliban and increasingly disillusioned with their own government.

Overall, "there doesn't seem to be a lot of progress being made. . . . I would think that from [the Taliban] standpoint, things are looking decent," the intelligence official said.


Several experts believe that the United States can no longer afford to leave the Pakistani military to clean up its side of the border. "Unless we resolve the safe-haven issue, this is not going to succeed," said Henry A. Crumpton, a CIA veteran who led the agency's successful 2001 Afghanistan campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "It's getting worse."

But others said the problem is not Pakistan or a lack of military or financial resources in Afghanistan. It is the absence, they say, of a strategic plan that melds the U.S. military effort with a comprehensive blueprint for development and governance throughout the country.

"There are plenty of dollars and a hell of a lot more troops there, by a factor of two, from when I was there," the former commander said. The question, he said, is "who owns the overarching campaign for Afghanistan, and what is it?"

Now, as we have already established beyond any reasonable doubt, advisers to all the major U.S. presidential campaigns read this blog regularly for tips on strategy. (Reportedly, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney sit by their computers all day hitting "F5" on their keyboards to see what this site's latest pearl of wisdom might be.) That said, Abu Muqawama would advise the campaigns to go in this direction:

For Republicans, candidates should crow about the tactical successes in Iraq enjoyed by the U.S. military while talking up the need to force political compromise in Baghdad. (Talk about how you're going to stress to the president the need to get more engaged.) With respect to Afghanistan, candidates should pledge to work hard to shore up the NATO alliance that is sharing so much of the fight there while at the same time promising both allies and the American public that resources freed up by Iraq will go toward winning the fight in Afghanistan. Remember: the U.S. may be doomed to go it alone in Iraq, but Afghanistan is a coalition fight. And as Churchill said, the only thing worse than fighting with allies ... is fighting without them.

For Democrats, the trick is to talk up U.S. military successes in Iraq while at the same time bemoaning the lack of any progress on the political front -- and the Bush Administration's apparent lack of effort to get their hands dirty turning temporary military gains into lasting political successes. And as things improve on the ground in Iraq -- and look, kids, just swallow the bitter pill, admit the U.S. military has enjoyed some success, and clap along with everyone else as far as that is concerned -- try to shift the voter's gaze toward Afghanistan, the war we actually did start because of 9/11. Here you can show off your newfound counterinsurgency expertise, talking about the lack of enough troops to engage in effective population-centric counterinsurgency or to seal off the porous border with Pakistan. It's all in Galula, and you can name-drop him while you're out there on the campaign trail, thus taking advantage of the only time in an American presidential campaign when you can approvingly mention the name of Frenchman and earn the respect of folks on the right as well as the left. Your line on Afghanistan should be that the Bush Administration has, effectively, been asleep at the wheel. And since that's the one war where the U.S. public has reached consensus, you're safe to both offer aggressive military advice and talk about how you would fight it differently and with greater intelligence if not intensity. (This last bit of advice could apply to any of the Republican candidates as well.)