Word has it Vice President Joe Biden is leading the charge within the White House to find some alternative to Pentagon requests for more troops in Afghanistan. Before dismissing his bid to head off a broader counter-insurgency campaign there, consider what he is probably saying to the President. It may make more sense than what General McChrystal is recommending…
1. Afghanistan is a failed state. States don’t fail because the cost of bread goes up. They fail because of deep divisions that make governance by any means other than coercion impossible. Is it really believable that after many centuries of corruption and internecine warfare, the Afghans can be converted to democratic practices on a timescale acceptable to American voters?
2. The main reason we are in Afghanistan is because it became a base for Al Qaeda’s attacks on America. But Al Qaeda is a loose confederation of extremists with presence in many countries, and it has already moved key leaders to Pakistan’s autonomous tribal areas. If we succeed in pacifying Afghanistan, won’t Al Qaeda just shift its base of operations to some other weak state like Somalia? Are we then going to launch a nation-building campaign there?
3. The standard formula for successful counter-insurgency campaigns suggests that about 500,000 friendly troops are needed to control a country of Afghanistan’s size. America can’t come up with even half that number, its allies are already getting cold feet, and the illiterate locals are hopeless unless they’re defending their own villages. Doesn’t that suggest that a textbook counter-insurgency campaign isn’t going to work?
4. There isn’t much in Afghanistan that we care about besides Al Qaeda, and the CIA is becoming adept at taking out terrorists with a combination of multi-source intelligence and unmanned aircraft. Do we really need a big military footprint to continue this effort? If the country is as corrupt as recent elections suggested, can’t we just buy most of what we need — human intelligence, mercenary loyalties — without exposing more U.S. soldiers to danger?
5. The only reason Barack Obama is in the White House is because the public soured on the Iraq war. American voters — especially those on the Left — are already souring on Afghanistan, so Obama is risking his presidency by following the Iraq approach in Afghanistan. It’s hard to see how the cause of peace would be served if Obama loses his political mandate by following the advice of folks who didn’t even vote for him.
6. Finally, what ever happened to “smart” power? Isn’t Afghanistan precisely the kind of ambiguous setting where a different approach is called for in dealing with emerging security challenges? Lots of people hated Ted Kennedy for calling Iraq a quagmire, but he turned out to be right. Are we really going to make the same mistake again in Afghanistan, instead of trying something new???
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