Permissible Arms

Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.


8 Responses

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  1. Abbie said, on 28 June 2010 at 14:36

    Hear, hear. Bacevich made a ridiculous leap in his op-ed. Nice post.

  2. […] Arms has an interesting analysis on this NYT’s commentary, and I strongly recommend reading her post after reading the above New York Time’s […]

  3. onparkstreet said, on 29 June 2010 at 11:02

    “4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.”


    – Madhu

    (Is this how we will deal – eventually – with certain troublesome elements of the country that shall not be named?)

    • Karaka said, on 29 June 2010 at 11:09

      Yes. (I say predictively.)

  4. onparkstreet said, on 29 June 2010 at 11:23


    Hey, Dr. Rid at KOW had a different take on the article:

    – Madhu

    (Thanked you for the Mansoor link in the comments section at Abu M – counterinsurgency under the micrscope.)

    • Karaka said, on 29 June 2010 at 14:07

      Thanks Madhu, for both the link and the h/t. I have to admit, I’m always a little surprised when I end up on a conservative side of, well, anything.

      I think Rid is being a little disingenuous when he says there is no one calling for no American/NATO presence in Afghanistan–there are any number of people calling for exactly that, many of whom generated posts and op-eds leading to my general pathos in this post. We’re saying pretty much the same thing, that there will be some degree on presence whatever strategy you advocate, but he suggests that everyone has come to that consensus, which is untrue.

      Also, I would question his call-out of “naivete” “hope” and “optimism” in the Douthat piece, because all I see is grim reality that counterinsurgency has the best chance of all the imperfect ideas in strategy of succeeding in line with our stated goals in Afghanistan.

      But thanks for pointing me there. Interesting to see another take.

  5. Mike Few said, on 29 June 2010 at 12:42

    “Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.”

    Madhu, this is one option. The other is to keep our long term presence discreet through advisors. Regardless, we’ll be there. We’ll see.

    • Karaka said, on 29 June 2010 at 14:08

      Indeed, Mike. Good point. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the discrete option, but it’s certainly there.

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