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August 26, 2009

A Cornucopia of Strategic Debates on Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

These days it seems like everyone in the blogosphere wants to debate the strategic rationale for staying in Afghanistan. Andrew Exum kicked things off a few weeks ago; Jari Lindholm and Bernard Finel weighed in recently and now Josh Foust is getting in the game.

Having debated Josh in the past I look forward to reading and responding to his arguments, but a few ground rules are in order. For example, Josh kicks off his case for Afghanistan here:

Many people I know and respect, like Michael Cohen, have written articles and blog posts explaining why there is little or no strategic rationale for the continued war in Afghanistan, and therefore the U.S. should withdraw from the conflict.

. . .  When the nation’s top military officer continues to insist on teevee that al Qaeda is still capable of striking the U.S., that carries tremendous import, and building the case that even another 9/11 is an acceptable risk requires a sophistication of argument—exhaustive, comprehensive, meticulous—that simply is not evident in the “withdraw now” folks. In other words, they need to build an air tight case, which hasn’t happened yet.

Two things here. I hardly see at as being incumbent on those who oppose the current mission in Afghanistan to build an air tight case - shouldn't that be the responsibility of the people who are arguing for a continued military intervention? It's one of my great pet peeves about recent US national security strategy that the default position always seems to be in favor of using military force - and that somehow it's incumbent on the opponents to prove why this is wrong.

But Josh is raising a bit of a strawman argument here.  A top US military officer insisting that al Qaeda is capable of striking the US shouldn't exactly shut down debate. Hell we had a President who spent 5 years telling us that Iraq was the central front in the war on terror - forgive me if I take these types of pronouncements with a grain of salt. 

And just because AQ is capable of striking the US doesn't mean the current mission makes sense. And being opposed to that mission is not the same thing as believing another 9/11 is an acceptable risk. One can certainly believe that US policy in Afghanistan is wrong while also believing that the US needs to aggressively target AQ terrorists.

But my real problem here is the notion that all of those opposed to the current US mission believe we should "withdraw now." I certainly don't although I do believe we should begin looking at ways to pare down our involvement there. The choice need not be full speed ahead or cut and run. That's the same false choice we dealt with in the Iraq debate. I, for one, believe that the US has some strategic interests in Afghanistan, but I do believe those interests are not being furthered by the current mission - and what's worse there is a growing credibility gap between what the Administration says needs to happen in Afghanistan and our capabilities (not to mention resources).

Josh is a smart guy so I'm sure he will engage with this argument. But please don't make this debate a black and white choice between two unpleasant choices.


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The fact they keep wheeling out the uniformed military to make their case is a sign of desperation. The notion that because he is a four star general and therefore the statements he makes are genuine (i.e. not politically motivated) is completely absurd and reflects a complete lack of understanding of how civil-military relations in the US work.

I don't care to be drawn into a discussion of who is making what strawman arguments, but a policy alternative to the course now being pursued by the Obama administration in Afghanistan that amounts to "...[looking] at ways to pare down our involvement there" is no alternative at all.

The default position on Afghanistan, a country in which American infantry are in contact with the enemy as I write this, is absolutely in favor of military force. It would be no matter who was President. It's certainly appropriate to ask whether the military or political courses being pursued by NATO and the American government are likely to work, whether the consequences of their not working are worse than the consequences of withdrawing from them, and whether the cost of the effort we're making is out of proportion to what we are likely to get from it. But those questions have to have answers, and the answers can't just be "I don't think this will work, show me something else."

That isn't opposition or even constructive criticism. It is griping, and isn't helpful to anyone.

There are a couple of things here. The first, and most important, is I think you radically downplay the importance of having the military discussing the threat. This is tied up in a larger discussion about why I don't think you're justified in saying history won't repeat itself in Afghanistan, but that deserves its own post to discuss.

But there is also a kind of procedural issue, I think, as well. You're saying that it is the burden of those who support to war to state why they support it. That doesn't make any sense. Supporting the war is the status quo—it is the burden of the advocate demanding change to justify why change is preferable to the status quo. That's why I made the point about the overall weakness of the disengagement set—that case has been asserted, but not proven (or even, I would argue, very strongly argued).

The point about strategic drift is a powerful one, however, and that is where I really agree with you, Michael. If our leaders cannot articulate why we need to be there—beyond Adm. Mullen simply saying it matters—then we really should not be there.

And I don't think those two positions are contradictory.

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