August 12, 2009

The Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue: Day Five

From reader David Betz:

‘Is the war in Afghanistan in the interests of the United States and its allies?’

No, I don’t think it is. It is useful to observe, however, a key point which is that whether or not their interests (broadly speaking) are aligned the major security challenges which face the United States and its allies are not really the same. John Mackinlay’s argument on this is encapsulated in this post at Kings of War:

Money quote: ‘The NATO campaign in Afghanistan had got seriously entangled in a Taliban uprising that was only marginally relevant to eradicating a globalised movement which threatened us . Unlike the US, Europe is connected geographically and through its migrant communities to the Muslim world; whereas the US can shrug off the consequences of its international unpopularity, the interconnected Europeans cannot. Huge spending on homeland security has made America almost impregnable , but Europe’s open frontiers cannot be secured in the same way. Above all, the entire concept of the adversary in the US’ Global War on Terror does not fit the European reality. Europe’s Muslim communities were less well integrated, and more antagonised by the Global War on Terror. They are the centre of gravity in our campaign ; Europe is less threatened by a net flow of terrorists entering its territory from the overseas sanctuaries than by terrorist attacks arising from within their own population; attacks which are fomented by the presence of British troops on Muslim lands.’

2.       ‘If so, at what point do the resources we are expending become too high a cost to bear?’

There is room to debate here. The question is to a large extent subjective. It’s hard to say whether the cost is too high or too low because that judgment depends on what it is that is being purchased. I’d say that the costs are probably too high already for what has been achieved and what seems likely to be achieved by the time we do what all other occupiers of Afghanistan have done—give up and go. But they’re way too low for what politicians in the UK and the US have been asking for. If the quality of Afghan governance improved by 100 per cent where would it rank on transparency and corruption index? Probably about 185th in ordinal ranking. If it’s GDP per capita doubled where would it rank? Still in the bottom third. So there’s a wide spectrum of plausible answers to this question. There is a LONG way to go. General Sir David Richards said the other day that the UK’s commitment to Afghanistan would last 40 years. David Kilcullen, on the other hand, was quoted a couple of days ago saying that we had two years left in the tank after which either we’d hand over to a capable Afghan force or ‘lose and go home’. Yesterday it was reported that ‘Helmand was a sideshow.’ I don’t disagree; in fact I’ve been saying so for yonks. But if it’s a sideshow what was OP Panther Claw about? Are we going to hold that ground? With what? Why? For my part, with great reluctance, I am on the verge of concluding that we’re done. Further thoughts here:

Money quote:

‘indisputably one thing that the army is fighting for is pride. And that is entirely correct–a fighting tradition is more vital to an army than practically anything else. Napoleon said so too... But then again there’s no point beating a dead horse either. At a certain point, to quote the wisdom of Marcellus Wallace, you’ve got to recognize ‘that’s pride f***ing with you. You’ve got to fight through that s**t.’

3.       ‘What are the strategic limitations of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and operations?’

Good question. I hate to come over all Socratic-like but I think it’s best answered with another question. Does anyone think there is a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan which stands a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Kilcullen clock? If no, then there’s an almighty great strategic limitation.

4.       ‘And if the war is not in the interests of the United States and its allies, what are U.S. and allied interests in Central Asia – and how do you propose to secure them?’

Well, now you’ve got me by the short and curlies because on the first part I’m not sure (Pakistani and Iranian nukes loom large in my consciousness, I also think the relationship with Russia is quite important, and anyway discussion of Central Asia inevitably brings out my inner-Mackinder) and on the second I’m also not sure but reckon that what we’re doing at the moment is not helpful. Thus on the logic of the immortal principle ‘when you’re in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging’ I think we need to stop digging.