August 10, 2009

The Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue: Day Three

For more on this dialogue, click here. A number of you have asked why this dialogue did not begin with me answering my own questions, which is a fair enough question to ask. I have some thoughts on this, obviously enough, but it might surprise you to know just how open I am to being persuaded in either direction on the issue. So I am enjoying this and will likely conclude this in a week or two with my own thoughts. I found Bernard's post yesteday to be thought-provoking and persuasive, though, and as far as considerate arguments for a continued engagement in Afghanistan go, so too is this one. Enjoy.

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

Yes. In my personal view, the United States really has only 2 core national interests - preserving the safety and security of the country and its citizens, and sustaining a stable international system that facilitates commerce, communication, and travel. The conflict in Afghanistan clearly relates to the safety of our country and our people, as it was the haven from which Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11. We have an obligation to the American people to prevent such a haven from arising anew. It is also in our interest to prevent instability in Afghanistan from exacerbating pressures throughout this volatile region, as turmoil in Central Asia, South Asia, or the Middle East is detrimental to the stability of the international system. So Afghanistan is relevant to both of America's core national interests.

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

This is tougher, as any answer must rely on judgments regarding end-states, strategy, and risk management, and politics. In much of this debate, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. We are not in Afghanistan to create a Central Asian Valhalla, as Secretary Gates put it. We are not there to reshape their society, create an efficient economy, modernize their social services or impose modernity. As soon as we enable sufficient Afghan security forces that are capable of preventing the Taliban from destabilizing vast swathes of the country, we need to get on a glide-path toward our eventual departure. We should be prepared to accept costs in order to achieve this end-state - the difficult question (which relates to the metrics debate you've helped generate) is determining when our progress is "good enough." The cost differential between getting from 50-75% will be high, but getting from 75% to 85% could be extremely high. We need to be happy with the 75% solution and accept the risk associated with a less than optimal outcome. Strategy, by definition, requires risk-taking and being honest about accepting less than perfect outcomes.

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

I think there are many and numerous strategic limitations. First, doctrine is only as good as the strategic context within which it is applied. The best doctrine in the world is not going to help very much if you've dorked up the strategy. This is why it remains vital for civilian policymakers to ask the tough questions and to have many sleepness nights getting the strategic parameters about right. Second, we defense geeks need to do a better job of differentiating between U.S. defense strategy and debates on doctrine and the operational-level of war. I think some COINsters, in their zeal to ensure that FM 3-24 or 3-07 and the innovations that undergird them are institutionalized, have tended to hype and inflate the importance of doctrine and construct arguments in which these ideas begin to sound like normative statements on what America's grand strategic principles must be in the 21st century. I think that is a dangerous and unsustainable road to put the country on.