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August 31, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Cordesman Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today, over at the Washington Post, Anthony Cordesman helpfully tells us not how we can win in Afghanistan - but how we can avoid losing. Cordesman argues that the US should send as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan and commit billions of dollars for what he describes as "a reasonable chance of victory." The alternative "certain defeat."

The almost funny thing about this argument is that never seems to occur to Cordesman - or for that matter any national security expert who advocates more military intervention -- that the level of commitment being advocated, on behalf of a amorphous notion of victory, may not be worth the cost. Indeed, the most important metric appears to be the "costs" of defeat as opposed, to say, the benefits of "victory."

Not surprisingly, Cordesman isn't even able to offer an idea of what a "reasonable chance of victory" will look like or what the US strategic interest is in spending blood and treasure for 5, 10 or who knows how many years in Afghanistan. But Cordesman knows what "certain defeat" looks like - so we must stay.

But enough about strategy - let's talk tactics, because apparently that's what really matters in Afghanistan. Cordesman argues that the Bush Administration failed in Afghanistan because:

  • They gave priority to Iraq
  • It undermanned and underresourced the war in Afghanistan
  • It didn't "react" to the growing corruption in the Karzai government
  • It didn't put enough pressure on Pakistan to crack down on al Qaeda and the Taliban
  • Never developed an integrated civil-military plan
  • Focused too much on failed development efforts

So what is Cordesman's solution? Here is a shocker - send more troops. And what will these soldiers do:

A significant number of such U.S. reinforcements will have to assist in providing a mix of capabilities in security, governance, rule of law and aid. U.S. forces need to "hold" and keep the Afghan population secure, and "build" enough secure local governance and economic activity to give Afghans reason to trust their government and allied forces. They must build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them.

And again, I want a pony for every man, woman and child in Afghanistan. Just so there is no confusion, Anthony Cordesman is suggesting that US troops should "build" provincial, district and even local government capabilities FOR the Afghan government. How is a sustainable solution to the problems of Afghanistan to have the US military take on the basic responsibilities of the Afghan state? Does Cordesman not see the irony in suggesting that Afghans need reason to trust their government and then advocating on behalf of a policy that has the US military take on the job of building that government's capacity?

And here's an even better question, why does Anthony Cordesman believe that this goal is achievable? Why would the US military be able to do what an Afghan government cannot and what evidence from the past 7 1/2 years would lead anyone to believe that such a goal is not only realistic but actually sustainable? Well actually Cordesman sort of answers that question, by suggesting that the appointments of Karl Eikenberry and Stanley McChrystal are "are our last hope of victory." Sigh.

Actually Cordesman goes further, doubling down on the Dave Dilegge approach:

They can win only if they are allowed to manage both the civil and military sides of the conflict without constant micromanagement from Washington or traveling envoys. They must be given both the time to act and the resources and authority they feel they need. No other path offers a chance of a secure and stable Afghanistan free of terrorist and jihadist control and sanctuaries.

Double sigh. Yes, the last thing we need is for our civilian elected leaders to weigh in here.

To his credit, Cordesman does identify two of the biggest problems with the US mission in Afghanistan - the lack of Pakistani support for targeting Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in their country and the high levels of corruption in the Karzai regime (a point bolstered by widespread allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing in the recent presidential election). Yet, he doesn't even offer solutions for these two problems. I realize this is 700-word op-ed, but if you are going to identify these issues as problems then don't you think that you should at least address them in the solutions section of the op-ed?

Yet, this doesn't stop Cordesman from complaining about "strong elements in the White House, State Department and other agencies" who are "ignoring realities" about the situation in Afghanistan. Mr. Cordesman meet the kettle. Kettle meet Mr. Cordesman.

Still there's more. Cordesman argues that unless President Obama follows his course of action he will "be as much a failed wartime president as George W. Bush." Seriously, give me a break. This is absurd hyperbole. Cordesman can't explain what victory looks like, doesn't make the case for a US strategic interest in fighting a long, drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan, doesn't offer solutions to the problems of Afghan government corruption, doesn't explain how the continued existence of Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan will be dealt with, pins all hopes on the leadership of Eikenberry and McChystal and offers a pie in the sky vision of the US military's capabilities in Afghanistan.

But unless Cordesman's advice is followed, Obama will be a failed President. I'll tell you what, if President Obama wants to know "How To Lose in Afghanistan" - he should listen to Tony Cordesman.


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