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Thursday, December 11, 2008


For the left in the Bush era, America's two wars have long been divided into the good and the bad. Iraq was the moral and strategic catastrophe, while Afghanistan--home base for the September 11 attacks--was a righteous fight.
In a fairly interesting article, republished by CBS here Michael Crowley of The New Republic interviews retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl about Afghanistan and asks us to think about what we are doing there. John Nagl is one of those experienced combat veterans of the US Army who helped write the Army/Marine Corps Counter Insurgency Manual.

So, now, before President Elect Obama is inaugurated, is when we should ask ourselves one last time--what is our goal in Afghanistan?

Karl von Clausewitz, author of On War, tells us that the first and most important duty of the statesman is to understand the kind of war he is engaged in. Julian Corbett quotes Clausewitz
Hence, says Clausewitz, the first, the greatest and most critical decision upon which the Statesman and the General have to exercise their judgment is to determine the nature of the war, to be sure they do not mistake it for something nor seek to make of it something which from its inherent conditions it can never be. "This," he declares, "is the first and the most far-reaching of all strategical questions."
Once we understand the war, we then have to ask ourselves what we are looking for. That is to say, what is our definition of victory. As the title of a recent book about GEN David Petraeus puts it Tell Me How This Ends.

  • Is it all about catching Osama bin Laden? If he dies of natural causes, can we go home?
  • Is it about destroying al Qaeda? Should we not be following AQ to ghettos of Manchester, England and the Banlieues of Paris and the Southern Islands of the Philippines?
  • Is it about preventing the Taliban from re-establishing a regime that blows up cultural icons and squirts battery acid at teenage girls to keep them from going to school? How much security is enough, and can we negotiate it?
  • Is it about democracy in Afghanistan? How stable will that democracy have to be?
  • Is it about eradicating the opium crops? For how long will Afghanistan have to be opium free before we can go home?
  • We pilot reconnaissance drones over Afghanistan from just north of Vegas. Can't we just police that area with airpower?
I don't know the answer to all those questions, although I think the answer to the first and last bullets is no. I have seen strong arguments pro and con on staying in Afghanistan. I am still turning it over in my mind. For sure, in this period between the Election and the Inauguration, we should all be thinking about what we are looking for in Afghanistan. Come 21 January we will start to get locked in.

If we accept that Iraq is now pretty much a success, what does that mean for Afghanistan? In the linked article above John Nagl estimates, based on classic Counter Insurgency (COIN) doctrine, winning will require 600,000 troops (that is Afghani and NATO and some others--we are part of the NATO contingent and are also there independent of NATO). That is a lot of people and a lot of them are going to have to come from the US.

But, we are unlikely to put a couple hundred thousand more troops into Afghanistan to get to the 600,000 number. Further, unless something happens that changes President Elect Obama's mind, we are not pulling out any time soon. In this I agree with the President Elect. So, we need an "end state" and a strategy that allows us to achieve that desirable end state without dedicating the deployable part of our military to Afghanistan. I believe that is possible. For me the key question is, are the American People prepared to follow President Obama into this territory?

Regards -- Cliff


The New Englander said...

"If we accept that Iraq is now pretty much a success..."

Cliff -- of course, Iraq has a long way to go, and our mission is far from over, but kudos to you for having the cojones to say this.

I was watching CNN this morning and a news reporter referred -- I kid you not -- to the "so-called reduction in violence" and the "so-called security improvements" in Iraq.


I think the causes of the improvements are debatable, their durability is debatable, etc. but when you're talking about hard statistics concerning violence, there's no question that Iraq has improved drastically in the last several months.

The Afghan questions are great ones, and at least the bright side is that as the Iraq mission starts to draw down, we can put our "front-sight focus" on that theater.


C R Krieger said...

Thanks New Englander.

I saw a quip today in which someone, back from Afghanistan on leave, noted that Iraq is nation building, but Afghanistan is civilization building. That is to say, Iraq has a sense of itself as a nation, while Afghanistan has a sense of itself as my tribe against your tribe. Our work in Afghanistan in the next few years will be qualitatively different. The Services will have to adapt from Iraq. We can only hope that Dep't of State and other Gov't agencies are able to contribute to this work. As Secretary of Defense Gates tells us, it should not be all DoD.

That said, kudos to those Dep't of State folks who are serving in Afghanistan. Foreign Service Offices (FSOs) swear the same oath as military officers and while they are sometimes cookie pushers, they are sometimes in the thick of serious struggles. They don't always get to choose.

Regards -- Cliff