Diary

Will's faltering will

George Will started and ended his piece with a personal story of a Marine who experienced emotional trauma. The part that I take issue with (among others) is this:

Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now, before more American valor, such as Allen’s, is squandered.

Have Allen’s efforts and valor been squandered? George Will made his conclusion, but to me it is an open question. If General McChrystal’s strategy for Afghanistan helps produce a successful outcome for Afghanistan (and by extension Pakistan), then to me the answer for Allen is “no”.

To Will, the benefit of denying the Taliban the ability to retake Afghanistan isn’t worth the cost. To me, it’s worth trying. For one, the Taliban have openly stated that they would give al Qaeda safe harbor, and they are doing that very thing in Pakistan, the “nation that actually matters.” For another, giving up Afghanistan means accepting a more unstable western Pakistan because the Taliban would control a larger area of operations. To me, the Taliban is a cancer, made all apparent in the Swat Valley (Roggio has more here), and it’s a cancer that should be destroyed, not pestered with pinprick drones.

Will is short on some facts, as Fred Kagan explains. And Will is also short on will, especially considering that there’s only 7,000 to 11,000 Taliban in Afghanistan.

Marines on the front lines in southern Afghanistan say there’s no question that the militants are just as deadly as the Iraqi insurgents they once fought in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Afghan enemy is proving to be a smaller, but smarter opponent, taking full advantage of the country’s craggy and enveloping terrain in eluding and then striking at U.S troops.

In interviews, Marines across Helmand said their new foes are not as religiously fanatic as the Syrian and Chechen militants they fought in Iraq and often tend to be hired for battle. U.S. commanders call them the “$10 Taliban.”

Taking advantage of the Afghanistan’s mountainous rural landscape, the fighters often spread out their numbers, hiding in fields and planting bombs on roads, rather than taking aim at U.S. forces from snipers’ nests in urban settings, as often was the case in Iraq. And they are not as bent on suicide, often retreating to fight another day.

“One thing about Afghanistan, they’re not trying to go to paradise,” said Sgt. Robert Warren, 26, of Peshtigo, Wis. He served a tour in both Iraq and Afghanistan before his current assignment at Combat Outpost Sharp, a Marines camp hidden in cornfields and dirt piles.

“They want to live to see tomorrow,” Warren said. “They engage with us, but when they know we’ll call in air support, they’ll break contact with us. … They’re just as fierce, but they’re smarter.”

Marine commanders believe they face between 7,000 and 11,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, although it is unclear how many are low-level militants hired for battle as opposed to extremist leaders.

The “ten-dollar Taliban” aren’t religious fanatics, and they’re the ones who can be turned.

Like I said with Iraq back in early 2007, the strategy that General Petraeus developed was a sound one and it deserved a chance. Fortunately, it got that chance and the situation turned around while the strategy was in effect.

The problem with Obama is that he didn’t have a coherent plan when he took office, just preferred outcomes, and it took almost eight months to find the right general to come up with the right strategy (more or less). Part of that strategy will likely include more troops. Like with Petraeus, I think McChrystal deserves a fair shot to see if it’ll work. George Will would rather throw in the towel, and I find his defeatism unfortunate. Michael Yon has a piece on his experiences with the British, and he hasn’t given up. The basic gist is that more soldiers and helicopters are needed. Anthony Cordesman is another who’s been following Afghanistan much closer than Will. He explains what went wrong and how to avoid the defeat that Will has resigned himself to. Joshua Foust makes a good case starting here (Part II of the series here). The key paragraphs:

It is possible that scaling back American influence in the country merely to that of an advisory and arms dealing role—much as the Soviet Union did post-1989—might be effective. Indeed, it very well might… for a little bit. But this is where it becomes impossible to ignore Pakistan (and not just for the shallow reason that al Qaeda is hiding in an ungoverned space in the Northwest). Pakistan has not lost its fundamental strategic rationale for supporting the original Taliban: a hedge against Iran, “strategic depth” against India, and a training ground for Kashmiri insurgents. In fact, it could be easily argued that a big reason Kashmir has calmed down is that all the crazies were too busy fighting in Miram Shah and Kandahar and Khost and Ghazni to go plant bombs in Srinagar.

And lest anyone think it is appropriate to write off the India-Pakistan conflict as somebody else’s problem, it is never somebody else’s problem when nuclear weapons are involved. As Jari Lindholm reminded, India and Pakistan have come a hair’s breadth from nuclear conflict twice over Kashmir. And like it or not, it is a compelling and vital American interest to prevent nuclear conflict in South Asia—which makes “fixing” Afghanistan in some way also a vital American interest.

Regional security is one of those topics that gets mentioned casually by many pundits but never really articulated. It is by far Ahmed Rashid’s most convincing argument, that supporting stability in Central and South Asia is a compelling interest not just for the U.S., but for the West in general.

When it comes to Pakistan, the big danger is not in a Taliban takeover, or even in the Taliban seizure of nuclear weapons—I have never believed that the ISI could be that monumentally stupid (though they are incredibly stupid for letting things get this far out of hand). The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict. That is worth blood and treasure to prevent.

When Afghanistan was a sanctuary for destabilizing elements—whether Chechens training to go fight Russia, Juma Namangani training to go fight Tashkent, or even Osama bin Laden training his men to go fight America—the region as a whole was a serious security concern. The reason why so many books and articles condemning the Clinton administration’s stand-offish attitude have been so popular is because that message resonates—how could you not have seen this coming?

While things have undoubtedly become more violent, they are also, in a way, more ordered. The insurgency in Afghanistan is a difficult and frustrating enemy to fight, more so the insurgency in Pakistan. But both are identifiable, and are capable therefore of being defeated or delegitimized. The fact that the U.S. has chosen not to do this is the topic for another post (and the source of the tremendous frustration and borderline burnout I’ve been struggling with the last few months). But right now, the major security concerns are compelling, they are fairly clear to me at least, and I am completely baffled as to why even the war supporters cannot articulate them.

So, let us summarize the strategic goals of the Afghanistan War:

1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;

2. The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

I find both of those convincing reasons to stay and do things right.

So do I. Andrew Exum has a good perspective as well.