Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Great Distracting Game

Afghanistan is a problem. It was the source of the 9/11 attack and so can't be allowed to be a sanctuary for jihadis to plan such an attack again. But it is a backwater of Islam that does not exert an influence on the wider Islamic world or the Arab-centric core of the religion. The Obama surges in Afghanistan achieved nothing lasting. What to do now?

Bing West writes of Afghanistan:

I voted for President Trump and believe President Obama gravely set back our nation overseas. But Obama’s instincts about Afghanistan were right, and our top generals led him down the wrong path. They claimed they could build a stable nation if he sent more American troops. That claim was in error because the tribal Afghans lacked a cohesive national spirit and because corruption was pervasive. The 10 million Pashtuns in the east were given no incentive to turn against the Taliban in their midst. Growing opium corrupted all involved; they knew they were exporting poison. There were no innocents and no commonweal. The only common defense was in support of the drug trade.

West adds on to that the problem of the Pakistan sanctuary that the jihadi enjoyed. It was a sanctuary that our ally and source of a major supply line to our troops in Afghanistan would not end; and because of that supply line and ally status of Pakistan, a sanctuary we were helpless to end.

West writes that the theater is an economy-of-force theater. I heartily agree. As a backwater of Islam it would never influence the Islamic world's thinking on their religion. I never agreed with the notion that the Iraq War was a distraction. Afghanistan was always the potential distraction. I never had high objectives for that war.

And as a landlocked theater, the risk of losing supply lines that ultimately must go through territory held by Iran or Pakistan, or former Soviet republics vulnerable to Russian pressure troubled me when I considered the issue of more troops for Afghanistan.

Before the surge--and before President Obama was even sworn in to office--I wrote about the future surge that would come because of the new president's promise to fight the "real war" in Afghanistan. I was not convinced we needed it, but was willing to trust the military that something could be accomplished.

I've often quoted this part, in my warning about trying to create "Afghanistan" as a nation:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.

But I also warned about the post-surge problem we would have:

Remember, at this point our real "Afghanistan problem" lies in Pakistan. Even a successful surge in Afghanistan means a post-surge Afghanistan will face the Pakistan problem once again. Like I've argued, in these circumstances I think we can do well enough in Afghanistan without a surge. Which doesn't mean that a surge can't accomplish our minimal objectives a bit faster or even achieve more. But it also means that we risk more--lives, treasure, and national prestige--by trying to achieve more results with more effort.

Our focus on trying to build the armed forces of "Afghanistan" the nation founders on the lack of interest in Afghanistan the nation among those who don't live in cities.

And Pakistan will remain a place for defeated jihadis to retreat until Pakistan decides to end the sanctuary, making our efforts forever futile as long as the jihadis want to rebuild and come back for more.

Winning in Afghanistan is not a matter of crushing our enemies and building a democratic Afghanistan.

It is, as West states, a matter of coping:

Some problems can only be managed.

Supporting a central nominal government and regional centers of power to prevent jihadis from establishing themselves is all we should aim to achieve.

It will require American and allied troops and a low level of casualties for a long time as we train, advise, and support locals who also wish to fight the jihadis.

We can't afford to lose in Afghanistan. But trying to do more in Afghanistan will distract America from the continuing threats in the core Middle East, rising threats in Asia, and renewed threats in Europe.