August 09, 2009

The Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue: Day Two

For more on the project, click here. Today's submission is one from the "con" side of the dialogue. (I am not, I should note, trying to keep a rigid 50/50 split between pro and con. I'm just choosing those arguments which strike me as either intelligent or as good conversation starters.)

The existing policy consensus on Afghanistan argues that developments there represent a threat to core national security interests, that the risks are so severe that we must remain actively engaged, and that the best way to guarantee our interests is to apply population-centric COIN to stabilize the country. I disagree with each of these assessments.

In deference to Ex’s 600 word limit, I can only sketch what is a complex argument.

First, Afghanistan is not strategically relevant. The fact that the 9/11 attacks “originated” there was dumb luck. The attacks did not require a state sanctuary. They did not require state support. They did not require a secure territorial base. Indeed, 9/11 was significantly planned in Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, and especially Hamburg, Germany where Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah were all based. Even the so-called influence on Afghanistan on Pakistan is overstated. From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan, Pakistan was more stable and under less pressure from Islamist radicals than at present when we and the Karzai regime control most of Afghan territory.

Second, the threat from Afghanistan is structurally the same as that posed by any potentially ungoverned space, including Somalia, the Congo, and various urban centers around the globe where state control is minimal. We don’t have a doctrine of preemptive intervention there, and there is no coherent reason for one in Afghanistan either. Threats from these regions need to be carefully monitored, and we may need to act in response to emergent ones. But we have the capability to target, disrupt, and in some cases destroy, terror networks (or rogue regimes for that matter) without occupation and nation building. How do I know? Because we did it in 2001 and 2002 when we deposed the Taliban and scattered AQ – all in six months – at a cost of under well under $20 billion and fewer than 60 fatalities. And that is the WORST CASE of what it would cost to disrupt a terrorist sanctuary because we’d allowed Afghanistan to develop the most robust terrorist infrastructure imaginable. If we’d sought to disrupt AQ operations there in 1998 – instead of missile strikes – it could have been done at even lower cost.

Finally, even if we decide we absolutely must remain engaged, we have to acknowledge that our approach is orders of magnitude less efficient than other efforts at establishing stability in Afghanistan. As I have written elsewhere: “Afghanistan has a pretty well established pattern of governance. Securing the loyalty of local elites provides stability. But instead of trying to take advantage of this, we’re seeking to overturn it in order to try to implement an operational doctrine that requires establishing a monopoly of force by the central government along with efforts to build popular loyalty through good governance.

I don’t doubt that Afghanistan would be a better place if we were successful, but this all explains why the Taliban was able to control Afghanistan prior to 2001 with perhaps 30,000 poorly trained troops and certainly under $1 billion in government revenue, while we’re struggling to do so despite nearly 100,000 superbly trained and equipped western forces bolstered by over 100,000 Afghan National Army troops all at a annual cost of over $60 billion (which, btw, is several multiples of Afghanistan’s GDP).”

My approach may be caricatured as global “whack-a-mole.” But the reality is that American military power is suited to reaching out, with brutal efficiency, and defeating our enemies. When we choose to engage in nation building instead, we sacrifice the ability to use our unique capabilities.