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July 08, 2009

The Thinnest of Reeds
Posted by Michael Cohen

Stephen Biddle has an interesting piece on Afghanistan in the most recent issue of American Interest. There he tries to answer the question of whether the US war in Afghanistan is "worth it." Kudos to Biddle for trying to answer this difficult question: unfortunately I don't think he he comes up with the right answer. Biddle argues:

The danger of a nuclear al-Qaeda should not be exaggerated, however. For a U.S. withdrawal to lead to that result would require a networked chain of multiple events: a Taliban restoration in Kabul, a collapse of secular government in Islamabad, and a loss of control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal (or deliberate transfer of weapons by sympathetic Pakistanis). These events are far from certain, and the compound probability of all of them happening is inherently lower than the odds of any one step alone. But a U.S. withdrawal would increase all the probabilities at each stage, and the consequences for U.S. security if the chain did play itself out could be severe. During the Cold War, the United States devoted vast resources to diminishing an already-small risk that the USSR would launch a nuclear attack on America. Today, the odds of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan yielding an al-Qaeda nuclear weapon next door in Pakistan may be relatively low, but the low risk of a grave result has been judged intolerable in the past and perhaps ought to be again. On balance, the gravity of the risks involved in withdrawal narrowly make a renewed effort in Afghanistan the least-bad option we have.

The chain of events that Biddle presents are a very, very long shot, beginning with a possible Taliban take-over of the country AND the collapse of Pakistan's civilian government. Even more remote is the chance that a Pakistani nuke would fall into the hands of jihadist terrorists and even if it did, it seems a bit far-fetched to assume that such groups would have the ability to deliver this weapon and use it against the United States? Indeed, it seems worth reminding folks that a similarly unlikely chain of events was presented as a rationale for going to war with Iraq in 2003.

Moreover, while the the risk to the United States of such a remote possibility is as Biddle suggests "severe;" doesn't the continuation of a 5-10 year military intervention also represent a severe risk to US interests? At a rate of $65 billion a years, we're looking at spending between $325-$650 billion, not to mention the ultimate price being paid by US soldiers. Is this a worthwhile price to pay on behalf of a counter-insurgency mission where as Biddle acknowledges there is "no guarantee" of success?

But perhaps what is most frustrating about Biddle's analysis is that he actually takes the time to survey the political landscape and draws the right conclusions about America's lack of political will for the mission in Afghanistan:

If the conflict proves as long and arduous as many counterinsurgencies have, votes on many budgets over several years will be needed to bring this war to a successful conclusion. These votes will take place against the backdrop of mounting casualties, increasing costs and growing pressure to restrain Federal budgets in the face of unprecedented deficits. The result could be a slow bleeding of support as a protracted COIN campaign goes through its inevitable darkest-before-the-dawn increase in casualties and violence.

So basically what you have is a counter-insurgency mission that will be very long, very difficult and will involve the expenditure of billions of dollars and countless lives - and is still not guaranteed to succeed. You have a growing anti-war coalition in Congress and a diminishing political window of opportunity to make real progress. Combine all these drawbacks with a mission that is grounded on assumptions of unlikely worst-case scenarios and it's very hard to see why Biddle thinks the mission should continue.

Part of the problem is that Biddle presents the US options as two extremes: continuing the current counter-insurgency mission or withdrawal. Frankly, this is a bit of a strawman. American options in Afghanistan are not this extreme; and in fact there is a middle ground option here. In the most recent issue of the Atlantic, Andrew Bacevich offers one:

Better to acknowledge and build on the Afghan tradition of decentralized governance. Let tribal chiefs rule: just provide them with incentives to keep jihadists out. Where incentives don’t work, punitive action—U.S. air strikes in neighboring Pakistan provide an illustrative example—can serve as a backup. Denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan does not require pacification—and leaving Afghans to manage their own affairs as they always have will reduce internal instability, while freeing up the resources to allow our own country to tackle other challenges more pressing than the quixotic quest to modernize Afghanistan.

In Steven Simon's recent must read in Foreign Affairs he argues for another possible approach:

The more efficient measures for defending against a devastating terrorist attack are killing al Qaeda's operational leadership in Pakistan and continuing to improve homeland security -- as opposed to nation building in Afghanistan.

I would add to both these suggestions a ramped-up effort to train and equip Afghanistan's police force and military so that they can take responsibility for waging war with the Taliban while actively working to degrade the Taliban's core group of fighters. At the same time the US needs to focus more energy on goading the Pakistani political and military establishments to commit more resources to internal nation-building.

But really which policy of these you endorse is irrelevant; the larger point is that the US has a multitude of options about what to do in Afghanistan. And considering the lack of strong political support for the mission wouldn't it make more sense to examine options that are as Biddle says not "expensive, risky and potentially unpopular?" Waging a full counter-insurgency is as Biddle argues, in part, the worst possible option. Ultimately the question in Afghanistan cannot be framed as a choice between "staying or leaving;" it's about making ruthless cost-benefit analysis and gaming out all possible scenarios. But above all, its about upholding America's vital interests with a policy that is realistic and achievable. It's hard to see how the course Biddle recommends achieves that goal.


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The only solution that can solve the situation in Afghanistan is a diplomatic one that involves India,Russia,Pakistan, and Iran. If all four of these powers can come to consensus on Afghanistan than they can put pressure on the various Afghan militias that depend on thier support to find a solution to that country's political problems. However the diplomatic solution is the most domestically unpopular becuase it would require the administration to work with Iran and Russia, whose regimes have a high negative rating with the American public. So the adminstration is pursuing the COIN strategy because they probably feel that is the most politically popular.

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Dr. Biddle has presented testimony before congressional committees on issues relating to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, conventional net assessment, and European arms control; served as U.S....

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