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August 06, 2009

Our Public Debate About Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Andrew Bacevich asks an important question about Afghanistan:

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

Over at Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum disagrees:

I'm sorry, I like Andrew Bacevich very much, but this is simply and demonstrably false. Plenty of us in Washington have in fact been having a very sober-minded discussion about U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the limits of our new counterinsurgency doctrine. To suggest otherwise reveals ignorance of the discourse here.

While sure some people have had this discussion; but to argue that it's been a key feature of the public discourse on Afghanistan is pretty hard to swallow. And for Andrew to use Stephen Biddle's tortured logic argument for staying in Afghanistan that offers a strawman choice between withdrawal and stay the course is not what I would call a robust debate.

For example, Biddle argues, "The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli." To that end, Biddle endorses continuing on the path of a counter-insurgency mission and robust US military involvement.

On the flip side Bacevich argues that while the first part of Biddle's argument is sound, the notion of using the military to stabilize the country is not - because, as he argues, stabilizing Afghanistan is not that terribly important to keeping Americans safe:

"Averting a recurrence of that awful day (September 11th) does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses. Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible."

 . . . It would be much better to let local authorities do the heavy lifting. Provided appropriate incentives, the tribal chiefs who actually run Afghanistan are best positioned to prevent terrorist networks from establishing a large-scale presence. As a backup, intensive surveillance complemented with precision punitive strikes (assuming we can manage to kill the right people) will suffice to disrupt Al Qaeda’s plans.

Is that not a very different conception of the importance of Afghanistan and its relation to the national interest? And let me ask a question to DA readers, which argument do you hear more often in public debates, Biddle's or Bacevich's? And not only is the debate constricted around the strategy for Afghanistan it is too around the tactics. Exum argues that the debate has "moved on to strategic and operational concerns." Yeah, but only if you think that population centric counter-insurgency is the only way to further US objectives in Afghanistan.

And what's more I'll call your Stephen Biddle and raise you Peter Bergen's recent piece in the Washington Monthly. I like Peter and he is a colleague, but I think it's fair to say that his article focuses far more on the operational side of the Afghanistan war and tends to gloss over the larger strategic issues raised by Bacevich.

It's one thing to focus on cloistered debates among think tank denizens. It's quite another to call that a robust public debate. The level of public debate in Washington about US interests and objectives in Afghanistan has been frightfully constricted. The only discordant voices from political leaders is coming from the left of the Democratic Party, Russ Feingold and his ilk.  When Bacevich says "Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed" well I'm sorry, but if we're talking the political realm that certainly seems to be the case.

From a media perspective, the WP and NYT are filled with stories about operational elements of our mission in Afghanistan; a lot less on national interests. Indeed, not one reporter even bothered to ask President Obama in his recent press conference a single question about Afghanistan. And as the mission evolves from a counter-terrorism mission (disrupt, defeat and dismantle Al Qaeda) into a full-fledged counter-insurgency (protecting the populace and building Afghan government legitimacy) it's more important than ever that these questions are asked and answered.

I don't always agree with Andrew Bacevich, but he's right to be asking these core questions about US national interests in Afghanistan and he's right to offer military options other than population centric counter-insurgency. Not many other people in this town are.


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I personally believe that some experts such as Biddle and the MSM really do not understand strategy. The MSM is mainly writing short articles that describe military tactics but not strategy because they probably believe that the American people cannot understand strategic concepts. While in the case of Biddle, he seems merely concetrated on the tactical side. In his recent work "Military Power," he concentrates only on tactics. For instance in the book Biddle mentions the tactical success of the Germany army in World War I and II, but fails to mention the flawed strategy that led to German defeat.

Some might say most of the blame for the lack of a public debate over Afghanistan strategy rests with a certain Presidential candidate in last year's election who spent about two years contrasting the worthy commitment in Afghanistan with the unworthy commitment in Iraq.

Candidates tend to remember their campaign promises once they win, and in this case there are a pair of powerful reinforcing factors. One, obviously, is that al Qaeda made its primary base of operations in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The argument has been made that it couldn't do that now, or that we could easily stop that from happening, or even that the Afghan sanctuary wasn't essential to the 9/11 operation. Officials in the administration and Congress as well as the mainstream media are not unaware of the argument. They simply don't believe it.

The second factor, equally obvious, is that public and media attention right now is focused on the economy, and on domestic policy debates related to that subject. The great majority of the American public knows no one directly engaged in the Afghan campaign; American casualties are, as yet, light and pictures for the media are few and far between; the issues involved are murky. It goes without saying that no one in Washington has even proposed funding the Afghan operation by raising taxes on anyone. To expect a high-profile public debate on Afghanistan strategy in these circumstances is to hope against all experience.

There is finally the question of what those demanding such a debate expect to come from it. Andrew Bacevich comes down in favor of withdrawing support from Afghans now dependent on us, while still relying on them to facilitate "intensive surveillance and precision punitive strikes" on terrorists. We would no longer protect Afgahn tribal chiefs from the Taliban, but we'd offer to pay them instead. America would withdraw from Afghanistan, but not really, and could always come back in a big way if things got really bad.

I have doubts of my own as to the direction of current American policy in Afghanistan, but if I decided to take Bacevich's side here I'd have real trouble making an argument that anyone I know could understand. The course he's advocating is as clear as mud, and if it's the best the critics of the Obama administration's efforts to make could on their chief's campaign promise have a public debate wouldn't lead anywhere.

Its absurd, as Exum suggests, that there has been anything approaching a serious debate about Afghanistan in Washington DC.

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