Permissible Arms

Derrida would be proud of this deconstruction.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency by Karaka on 14 September 2009

There was a bit of a dust-up over at Abu Muqawama this weekend. Now, I agree that the poster was setting up a straw man argument, but it’s the comments to this post that really caught my mind.

It reflects the larger argument going on right now, within the community of similarly-focused bloggers and to a degree within the mainstream public (though not nearly as much as might perhaps be valued), about the decision to remain in or withdraw from Afghanistan; and should we remain, what strategic procedure should be employed to reach our objectives. There is also a cogent argument, as well, questioning what exactly our goals in Afghanistan are.

This month’s variation on the discussion began with George Will’s column in the WP advocating withdrawal from Afghanistan to fight this war from outside the nation’s borders. Spencer Ackerman picks up the discussion where it has come to now, a verbal spar between Yingling and Krulak that talks through some of the finer points of a) the reasons the US entered Afghanistan in the first place; b) the implementation of the newer COIN strategy; and c) reasons to remain in Afghanistan now, eight years later.

Additionally this weekend, Cliff May (Washington Times) responded to Will’s assertion that we should withdraw with something perhaps closest to my own opinion on the matter.

I would stress this: Afghanistan is not a war. It is one battle in what — I’m not the first to deduce — is going to be a long war, a global conflict to defend America and the West against an insidiously dangerous enemy…We are fighting over ideas as much as land. In fact, as real estate, Afghanistan is of minimal value. But what happens there will help determine how we — and our enemies and the millions of people around the world who have not taken sides – understand what this struggle is about and who is likely to prevail.

And yet the response to this position, which is hardly radical and is almost unabashedly pragmatic, has been something closer to “cut our losses.” Fareed Zakaria, whose work I generally admire, put it this way:

There are three ways to change security conditions in Afghanistan. First, increase American troops. Second, increase Afghan troops. Third, shrink the number of enemy forces by making them switch sides or lay down their arms. That third strategy is what worked so well in Iraq and what urgently needs to be adopted in Afghanistan. In a few years, Afghanistan will still be poor, corrupt and dysfunctional. But if we make the right deals, it will be ruled by leaders who keep the country inhospitable to al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups. That’s my definition of success.

Where May suggests that we are, and should remain, in it for the long haul, Zakaria views Aghanistan as an entirely unwinnable war by ISAF troops. I think this is a false claim, and it’s one that I worry will be largely supported by key Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. While I do feel that we, in particular, have an ethical obligation to remain in Afghanistan, I can set that aside in support of other arguments. Namely that, by withdrawing from Afghanistan, we provoke a greater risk to our national security than we do by staying, even if it is unpopular. Sylvana Q. Sinha, at the Af-Pak Channel, sums up the crux of argument well:

In light of all we know about Afghanistan after nearly eight years, it appears the only reason for President Obama to lead the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan is because the public is tired of war. This is not a good enough reason, and making a decision based on it would not be an act of true leadership.

I think it is clear that Americans are tired of war; there is certainly something to the news fatigue that so many people invested in the outcomes of our wars complain about. But it is not the responsibility of the President to be popular. It is the responsibility of the President to insure the security of the nation, and withdrawal from Afghanistan will, by anyone’s measure, do nothing further the security of the United States.

Robert Jervis, also from Af-Pak Channel, addresses a response to the above assertions:

A third but subsidiary argument is that withdrawal would undermine American credibility around the world. Again, the fact that this is an echo of Vietnam does not make it wrong, but it does seem to me much less plausible than the other arguments. Who exactly is going to lose faith in us, and what are they going to do differently? Much could depend on the course of events in other countries, especially Iraq, which could yet descend into civil war. But if it does, would American appear more resolute — and wiser — for fighting in Afghanistan?

They are fair questions, but I think Sinha does well in answering them. And here again, Londonstani’s post referenced above in Abu Muqawama brings up another relevant point, straw man though it has accurately been assessed to be: at what point does the acknowledgment of the difficult position the Afghani people are put in become something of note? Surely the discussion cannot rest entirely on enemy power, troop force, and public support. Something has to be said for the situation as it has become for the citizens of the country itself.

I do not doubt that I am still in the process of answering these questions. But it seems as though the fundamental belief in all of this is that this war can somehow only be fought by troops, and won effectively by troops, and that this win can only be achieved over a long period of time. I wonder if perhaps we’re predicating this discussion on nation building only through military action, and if instead we should take this counter-insurgency strategy published last month and look at it on a larger, only partially militaristic level.

Then again, apparently al Quaeda isn’t really a problem in Afghanistan anymore, so maybe we’re all off the mark.

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