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August 10, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - Is The Worm Turning UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

Perhaps it is my imagination (or just wishful thinking) but it sure seems like over the past week or so there has been a rising sense of queasiness about the current US mission in Afghanistan. Not a moment too soon it would seem since Gen McChrystal now seems poised to ask for an additional 10,000 troops for the fight.

Over at abu muqawama, Andrew Exum has started an Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue to examine the national interest implications of our mission in Afghanistan. That's a good step in the right direction and I applaud Andrew for doing it. But I sort of wish he would put some skin in the game by answering the questions that he is posing.

Along those lines, Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy takes a stab at the issue and comes up with a pretty smart response:

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things).  So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa --- into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments.  Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world?  On whose budget? To his credit, McChrystal adviser Steve Biddle raises all of these questions in his excellent American Interest article from last month -- but in my view goes wrong by limiting the policy options to either full withdrawal or full commitment to COIN.

I highly recommend reading the whole post.

But Mark's post got me thinking about something else. Mark is front and center about the fact that he is not a Afghanistan expert. While I've been highly critical of the US mission in Afghanistan, not only because the tactics seem at odds with the strategy, but because as Mark points out the national interest in stabilizing Afghanistan seems very unclear, not being a regional or national expert on Afghanistan is something that weighs on me as well.

But whether one is an expert or not, if the Iraq war showed us anything it is that untested and unquestioned assumptions can lead to disastrous outcomes. We all have a responsibility to scrutinize the arguments that would cost the lives of American servicemen and ensnare the country in potential military quagmires. And that means questioning the pronouncements of our leaders - whatever our political affiliation. As someone pointed out to me recently, our default position on going to war or intensifying a military intervention should be "this might not be such a good idea," unless someone can make the case why military conflict is in the national interest. But generally it seems since September 11th, the opposite has occurred - the pressure is on opponents to prove why military intervention is a bad idea. And in a politicized national security environment that is not an easy argument to make.

The intervention in Afghanistan has been predicated on an often dubious set of assumptions or at the very least, ones that are not scrutinized as seriously as they should have been (on the latter, I certainly include myself). It's entirely possible that those of us who are critical of the US mission in Afghanistan are wrong and that our pessimism is unfounded. But it should be incumbent upon those who believe we need to do more not less in Afghanistan to make the case. Increasingly it seems that's just not happening.

UPDATE: My apologies to MarC Lynch for misspelling his name - that's a C not a K!


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While our military actions in the region seem to be making 'progress' there still is some public relations work to do in affected countries...namely Pakistan.

Keep at it. And if you haven't alread check out the book "The Best and The Brightest" for a case study in mission creep.

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