October 14, 2009

Using Time Wisely

I was having coffee with a former commander in Afghanistan this morning when I started talking to him about something that has been on my mind for the past week or so. Even if the president has made up his mind with respect to how he is going to resource this next phase of the war in Afghanistan, it might make sense to take his time before making an announcement. Furthermore, it might also make sense to make very public this open-ended debate about what the size and nature of our committment to Afghanistan should be.


Well, if the White House uses this time wisely, it should be putting pressure on Hamid Karzai at the same time in which signals are being sent that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is at a fork in the road. Our committment, we should be telling Karzai, is at least partially dependent on what his government does and fails to do. If, for example, he is certified the next president of Afghanistan, we Americans have a list of people we would like -- nay, need -- to see retained in key ministries and provincial governorships. Furthermore, we have a "black list" of those people whose presence in an Afghan government would endanger America's relationship with the Afghan government going forward.

If this looks like tampering in the affairs of another government ... it is. But the Karzai government is already dependent on U.S. and allied military muscle to stay in power in the face of a Pashtun insurgency -- an insurgency robustly supported by neighboring Pakistan. It is hardly radical that we then have a say in the behavior and composition of the government U.S. blood and treasure are being spent protecting.

Because as much as Tom Friedman expresses the frustration being felt by a lot of Americans in his column in the New York Times today, what he is feeling should not come as a surprise to any people fighting a counterinsurgency campaign on behalf of a third party. As Steve Biddle correctly notes (.pdf), for a state to be facing an insurgency, it is probably already facing a crisis of legitimacy. The trick comes when the host nation government is incompetent, corrupt or predatory toward its people. Then the nation or coaltion waging the counterinsurgency campaign has to step in with a plan designed to reform the government's composition or behavior with leverage. At this moment in time, we have some leverage. But it will go away once the president commits one way or another.

So take your time, Barack. Just make sure your lieutenants -- Holbrooke, Eikenberry -- are using this time wisely.