Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 September 2009


Who Owns this Calamity?
Violating the Powell Doctrine
Option 1:  Negotiate with the Taliban
Option 2:  Bring in the Neighbors
Option 3:  Turn the Job over to the Afghans
Option 4:  “Stay the Course
Option 5:  Get out and Call it Victory or “Peace with Honor”
Conclusion:  Democracies and Limited War
Clarification/Correction (9/17/09)

Who owns this calamity?

Unfortunately,President Obama now owns Afghanistan.

He campaigned for the presidency by arguing that Afghanistan is the essential war and Iraq the optional, unnecessary war. He promised to escalate our involvement in Aghanistan as we de-escalate the war in Iraq. That campaign promise all but impels him to get in deeper.

The President has been at the helm for over seven months. That’s not a long time in an eight-year war, but it’s enough to set a direction. Already he has begun to set that direction by changing commanders and transferring forces from Iraq. The General he chose, McChrystal, reportedly will ask for more troops.

McChrystal seems a good choice, but even the best commander can’t save an impossible mission. And as a good student of history, the President should know even good generals often underestimate the enemy and the difficulty of a mission and overestimate their forces’ capability.

Finally, the President owns Afghanistan—or soon will—because he is the Commander in Chief. As outlined in another post, military and foreign policy are the two fields in which our presidents rule supreme. No one should blame the President if Congress balks at health-insurance reform. But if things go awry in Afghanistan, there will be no one else to blame, because he and only he calls the shots. Dubya may have made the initial blunders and anointed Hamid Karzai, but the endgame will fall on Obama’s watch, and he will bear the onus.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is looking more and more like Vietnam. We lost in Vietnam because we underestimated the strength and endurance of a decades-long national liberation movement. We also backed a loser: the corrupt, oppressive, inept Diem regime. Both kinds of mistakes appear increasingly evident in Afghanistan. We are taking on a complex and hardy people who live in uniquely difficult terrain and who have successfully repelled every foreign invader since Alexander the Great. And the champion we have chosen, although soft-spoken and fluent in English, appears to be running a government every bit as corrupt, inept and oppressive as Diem’s. The only salient difference is that Hamid Karzai, unlike Diem, has not expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler. For those of us who lived through the national agony of Vietnam, there are red flags all over the field.

So before the President moves decisively in any direction, he should do what he does best: stop and think. The General’s still-secret evaluation and request for additional forces are on his desk, but they shouldn’t be the only thing he reads. Official reports often mask or distort the truth. The State Department, the DNI, and the CIA should all chime in. So should NATO, the UN and every NGO and commercial interest with experience in the region.

Beyond them, the President should reach down inside our intelligence, diplomatic and military bureaucracies and interrogate the best and the brightest, on his own and outside the chain of command, just as FDR did. Finally, the President should encourage a national debate, especially in Congress. He calls the shots, but things will go far more smoothly if he informs Congress and lets it participate in developing strategy, as Dubya barred it from doing in Iraq.

We invaded Iraq to neutralize weapons of mass destruction and force regime change. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and we achieved regime change when we captured Saddam in December 2003. Nearly six years later, we are still there, trying to turn a vastly changed Iraq into a stable, self-sustaining democracy.

We invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahiri and the jihadists who planned 9/11. We invaded only after we demanded that Mullah Omar turn them over and he refused. We pulled Omar’s Taliban from power but failed to capture or kill Omar himself. With Pakistani aid, we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of 9/11, but we failed to find bin Laden and Zawahiri. There are still terrorist training camps in the region, and we’ve failed to shut them down. And we’ve been there now for eight years and counting.

Violating the Powell Doctrine. The most vital question to ask about Afghanistan today is “what is our mission”? Is it to do what we started out to do, capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahiri and their immediate cohorts? Is it to shut down the training camps? Is it to keep the Taliban, whom we displaced from power by fighting them and buying off local warlords, from regaining control? Or is it, as in Iraq, to build a new nation?

With each of those questions, the risk of deeper and longer involvement increases. We might get lucky and kill bin Laden and Zawahiri with a Predator strike tomorrow. Pakistani intelligence might find them and turn them in. Bin Laden might even die on his own from his chronic kidney disease. But their protégés would only replace them and carry on the jihad.

Even if we wiped out all the training camps, the risk of their returning remains as long as the Taliban are willing to offer jihadists Islamic hospitality. And the Taliban seem to be on the resurgence, at least in the west and largely Pashtun south.

So we could decide to remove the Taliban permanently. But “the Taliban” are not a modern army. They are a very loose conglomeration of widely different local groups with varying motives and allegiances. Furthermore, with a corrupt, inept and oppressive regime in Kabul, the Afghans themselves offer no viable alternative. That’s why General McChrystal understandably wants to build a new nation, from the ground up, with American blood and treasure.

Thus does mission creep undermine all four pillars of the Powell Doctrine, namely: (1) a clear mission, (2) provided with overwhelming force, (3) enjoying popular support in America, and (4) possessing a clear exit strategy. We have no precise mission. What we think we have always seems to devolve to the least possible task (prolonged occupation and national transformation), which no invading army has accomplished in that region in human history. We have long since passed the point when overwhelming force might have been quickly decisive, and anyway, we are exhausted by the war in Iraq and have no overwhelming force to commit. Our people are starting to lose faith in the mission (whatever it is), so we have no solid popular support.

Finally, we self-evidently have no exit strategy. Nation building is not an exit strategy but a prescription for indefinite commitment. We are still in Germany, Japan and South Korea—and in strength—after over half a century. Under any reasonably rosy scenario, nation building would have increasing numbers of Americans asking why we were spending so much blood and treasure to build a nation halfway around the world when we need so badly to rebuild our own.

It might not be amiss to point out here that Gulf I was our only successful, significant war since the Korean Armistice 55 years ago. (The outcome in Iraq is still in doubt.) We fought it—and limited our commitment to it—under the Powell Doctrine.

Having failed every test of the Powell Doctrine, we now have the same dilemma in Afghanistan that we had and have in Iraq. We are there. We have changed things irrevocably by being there, and a precipitous pullout might make things worse. So even if we wanted to get out—and some of us don’t—doing that well would not be an easy mission either.

There seem to be only five viable options:

1. Negotiate with the Taliban. We could offer a very simple deal. You hand over or expel bin Laden, Zawahiri and their crew from both Afghanistan and Pakistan and shut down the terrorist training camps, and we get out and give you economic aid.

The only reason this sounds crazy at first is that we Americans tend to conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda. But they are very different. In all I have read about the Taliban, I have never seen it reported that they bought into the idea of international jihad against the United States, let alone trained their fighters to wage war against us abroad. They just want to rule their own country after thirty years of unceasing war, and they appear to have fought us only there.

What kept Mullah Omar from handing over bin Laden in the first place is Islamic hospitality, which is a strong command of the Quran. As a good Muslim, he would not expel his invited guests or turn them over to their enemies. (Bin Laden’s money, the amount of which after his flight from Somalia is in dispute, also may have helped.)

Today Omar is eight years older and maybe wiser, and bin Laden’s money may be exhausted. Omar and his movement have suffered immeasurably. And we are there now, in force. The same deal that we offered in 2001 may seem much more attractive to Omar now, especially if it involves our leaving Afghanistan, his native country.

And as an older and wiser man, Omar cannot help but have pondered the endgame. What good would Al Qaeda do Afghanistan after a Taliban victory, providing a rival center of power, forming a nucleus of heavily armed foreign immigrants trained in terrorism, and attracting constant unwanted attention from neighbors and mighty foreign powers (including the U.S. and Russia)? Maybe Mullah Omar has gotten wise enough to want all foreigners to get out and leave Afghanistan in peace.

If not Mullah Omar, maybe other Taliban. The Taliban are hardly monolithic. While an offer of peace to some splinters might not strike a reliable deal, it might enlist certain moderate Taliban in a more productive cause than fighting the rest of the world to the death. The worst an offer to negotiate might do is split the movement and draw some Taliban to our side.

The primary obstacle to this strategy is that we have demonized the Taliban. That’s not hard to do: their military tactics are ruthless and often medieval, and so is their treatment of women. But oddly enough, many Afghans seem to prefer them to the existing government. I’m not sure I would disagree in their position; if your wealth (and daughters!) were regularly taken by men with AK-47s and you had no recourse but to God, a religious regime that treated you honestly but strictly and could stop those practices might not seem like a bad idea.

There are moderate Taliban who let girls go to school and boys listen to music. And there is no telling what progress peace, travel and competition with neighbors might bring to Afghanistan after thirty years of unremitting war. And even if not, there are many other places in the globe (including some in Pakistan) where primitive treatment of women prevails. Are we going to fight all of them and spill our blood and treasure to rebuild their nations and their economies?

2. Bring in the Neighbors. Afghanistan has two powerful neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Its neighbors to the north, the “Stans” (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), all share ethnic minorities with Afghanistan and may have some influence over them. And the Stans are still trying to find their way in the world after their release from the Soviet Union’s grip. Even China shares a small common border (76 km) with Afghanistan. Why not get all these nations together and see what they can contribute to national stabilization?

Iran and Pakistan are already there, through their intelligence and commercial agents. So is India, even though it’s not a neighbor. And the Stans undoubtedly have familial, commercial and even intelligence and military ties that cross the border. Maybe some or all of these neighbors would see the merit in a NATO-U.S. withdrawal at the price of closing down the terror camps. Maybe they might even help enforce that deal. It’s worth a try.

3. Turn the Job over to the Afghans. This option may sound reasonable after what we’ve done in Iraq. As Dubya said in his usual childish simplicity, “as they stand up, we stand down.”

The problem in Afghanistan is that there is no one to stand up. The existing government is universally despised outside of Kabul. Its troops and police are notoriously corrupt and inept; their loyalty lies more to clan and local leader than to the state. Furthermore, whereas Iraq had only three major ethnic groups in relatively contiguous territories, Afghanistan has at least eight, all mushed together on a map that looks like a massive Rorschach blot.

The ethnic dispersion and diversity might not be such a problem if there were hope for an honest central government that everyone could trust. But the recent massive fraud in national elections gave the lie to that. In the absence of a viable central government, this option inevitably devolves to the first or fourth: make a deal with the Taliban or do the job ourselves.

4. “Stay the Course.” I use this odious phrase (from Dubya’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq) to make a point. This option is the most open-ended and risky of all. It puts us in the position of foreign invader of a nation that has repelled all foreign invaders for over two millennia. And in the absence of a viable, trustworthy central government, it leaves us with the unenviable task of building a nation, complete with local and regional institutions and a national economy, from the ground up. The American people would tire long before our troops could complete that open-ended mission, the more so since there is no competent government in Kabul to help. So in the end, this option would likely devolve into one of the others, unless the U.S. could summon the type of altruism, internal strength and staying power that nothing in current events would lead us to foresee.

5. Get Out and Call it Victory or “Peace with Honor.” This of course is what we ended up doing in Vietnam. No one who has seen the pictures of the last helicopter leaving what was then known as Saigon (now Ho Chih Minh City) could call our exit honorable.

If we get out in the near future, likely the Taliban will prevail. Whether they continue to harbor Al Qaeda would be entirely up to them. Better to negotiate with them now, when we are there in strength and no one (including us!) knows how long we’ll be there, than when we are an unpleasant memory petitioning from afar.

If we get out in the far future, still not having built the desired nation, everything may have changed in unintended ways. Some intelligence officials think that a prolonged war against the Taliban in the south, who are mostly Pashtun, might spread to the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, with unpredictable consequences, including destabilizing Pakistan. Unless we are willing to commit massive additional force for a decade or more, this seems like an unacceptable risk to run, with an unacceptable cost-benefit ratio.

So if we forsee a dwindling national commitment in resources and popular will, the best course of action would be to negotiate an exit soon, while our strength is at our predicted maximum and we have a new president who, for a time at least, can command popular support.

Conclusion: Democracies and Limited War. At first glance, none of these options seems particularly palatable. But that’s what we get for breaking every pillar of the Powell Doctrine so cavalierly. That was Dubya’s, Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s contribution to national calamity. Nevertheless, the President must bear the onus of how things end, because the end is likely to come on his watch.

The best strategy would be continuing to make credible noises about Option 4 while pursuing the hell out of Options 1 and 2. That would require a certain level of deceit, which is not easy in a democracy, especially one in which the President has promised extraordinary transparency and Congress, having been virtually excluded from managing the War in Iraq, is rightly jealous of its checks and balances.

But that’s what happens when democracies make limited war for unclear objectives. Democratic governments make war best when the war is all out, survival is at stake, and the popular mood is wholly in favor of the effort, as it was in World War II. In all-out war, deceit is possible (under military discipline) even for democracies, as it was during our feint at Calais before our invasion at Normandy. When objectives are limited and popular support is questionable, diplomacy and commerce are better tools for democracies, occasionally supplemented by quick and lethal covert action.

In our breast-beating stage after we “won” (and lost) the Cold War, we forgot these facts of life. We could have learned much from our closest allies, the British, who suffered similar traumas during their loss of empire after World War II.

But we didn’t learn because we thought we sat astride the world. We thought ourselves excluded from the truths of history by our “superpower” status and our “exceptionalism.” However skillfully the President handles the war, we and our children will be paying for that arrogance for decades. So will the Afghans.

Clarification/Correction: In earlier versions of this post, there was some confusion about where bin Laden, Zawahiri and their gang are hiding now. We don’t really know, but our best guess is that they are in the tribal border provinces of Pakistan, the so-called "Northwest Frontier Provinces."

Implicit in that assumption is that they are, if not under the Taliban’s protection there, at least operating in areas where the Taliban enjoy substantial influence and support among the local population. Those facts would allow local Taliban forces in that area, presumably including Mullah Omar, to expel Al Qaeda if they so chose, or at least to turn the leaders over to the West by locating them for Pakistani or Western intelligence. For we believe the Taliban are not only more numerous and better fighters, but also have the advantage of closer connection with the indigenous population through language and culture.

Without the Taliban’s support, Al Qaeda would be nothing more than strangers in a strange land, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is reasonable to conclude that the Taliban control their fate in the region wherever they may be hiding. Thus a deal with the Taliban, if carried through before our departure, should be able to rid the region of Al Qaeda.


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