July 07, 2010

The Real Afghanistan Debate

Having just finished a fantastic lunch of fried chicken and sweet tea at Champy's, I am now preparing to leave Chattanooga for Washington. Before I leave, though, I want to highlight this fantastic op-ed in today's Financial Times by LTG (Ret.) Dave Barno, now my colleague at CNAS. Gen. Barno has been a breath of fresh air around the offices at 1301 Pennsylvania, largely due to the kind of sober analysis he brings to this op-ed. (Yes, I know, the pesky firewall at the FT is preventing you from reading the op-ed. But jump it somehow and read the op-ed. Or do like I do and subscribe to the FT -- my favorite paper, by the way, which has replaced my subscription to the Wall Street Journal -- on your Kindleir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B001BAJA9K or something.)

Gen. Barno highlights the very real difficulties Gen. Petraeus is going to face in Afghanistan and warns that failing in just one of four critical areas might lead to policy failure. But he also does something else: he defines near-term success, in an oblique kind of way, writing that "success in moving to an enduring (if limited) military presence is achievable."

This is really important: those who fret about American imperial overreach will argue a limited, long-term military presence in Afghanistan amounts to "garrisoning Central Asia". But despite all the anger and emotion in current debates over U.S. and allied Afghanistan strategy, few are arguing for a complete and rapid withdrawal. Michael Cohen, one of the current strategy's critics, linked to several alternate strategies for Afghanistan on his blog the other day, and none argue for a complete withdrawal. The real debate, in other words, revolves around how quickly we can transition to a lighter footprint.

On the one side you have people who argue that something looking like a comprehensive, resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy gives you the best chance to build up key Afghan institutions in the next 12 months to allow you to begin the transition to a lighter footprint counterterrorism and security force assistance mission. On the other hand, you have those who feel the president should have adopted that kind of lighter footprint last spring and that we are needlessly wasting U.S. resources on the current strategy. Despite all the hot air you wil read on blogs like this one (or hear coming out of the mouth of the chairman of the GOP), the real debate about Afghanistan revolves around the best way to spend the next 12 months paving the way for a long-term, limited presence. Those who really think a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is on the table are dreaming. They will not like to hear it, but speaking as a student of the various positions on Afghanistan articulated by U.S. politicians, it is excedingly difficult to see either this president or a Republican presidential candidate arguing for a total withdrawal. It's also hard to see this president or any pretender to the throne arguing for the Cadillac option: a time- and resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign that would truly garrison Afghanistan ad infinitum.

Economists would shrug and argue that this is how people make decisions: rational people, in the words of Greg Mankiw, think at the margin. They rarely decide to simply do something or to not do something. More often, they decide how much of something they are going to do. They weigh marginal costs against marginal benefits and make a decision based on that calculation.

In summary, you might get the impression based upon things you read in the newspapers and on the interwebs that the debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan spans the spectrum from those isolationists who think we should simply pack up and leave to those who would have us devote all our national treasure to U.S. and allied success. But those are not the real parameters of the debate: the real debate is at the margins, and the real question facing policy-makers is how best to reduce the U.S. and allied presence in Afghanistan over the near term while protecting U.S. and allied interests and weighing the costs and risks involved with each choice.