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September 09, 2009

Welcome To the Club
Posted by Michael Cohen

Writing today about yesterday's devastating Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall article on the widespread evidence of fraud in the Afghan election, Andrew Exum has this to say:

When people look back on the Afghanistan war, this might be the moment when historians will judge we should have cut the cord on the Afghan government. If we believe Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, and we believe a counterinsurgency campaign to represent our best chance of success in Afghanistan, then we have a big problem. Because if we believe what we ourselves have learned about counterinsurgency campaigns, we understand that we cannot be successful in one if the host nation government is seen as increasingly illegitimate -- and that's what the Karzai government is.

Legitimacy, as Lipset writes, is a relative. Its root is the belief that existing institutions are those most appropriate for society. The deeply unpopular Taliban's form of government is not seen as being a better alternative to what the Afghans currently have. But the Afghans are both losing faith and looking for something else. The United States and its allies are blamed not just for keeping Karzai in power but also for the excesses of his government, his relatives, and local officials. And for those who are calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, this election presents the best possible excuse to do so.

Missing from that excuse alone, of course, is a discussion of how the United States and its allies will protect their interests -- or the costs of withdrawal. And that's why I do not see withdrawal as an option.

Must be quite a day over at 13th and Penn.  Just to be clear those who have been arguing for a while about the problems in the US mission in Afghanistan hardly see this as the "best possible excuse" for withdrawal - they see it as further evidence. In fact, none of this should be a surprise. Indeed, if folks read this August 24th article from the NYT, the evidence that the Karzai government lacked legitimacy for an effective counter-insurgency operation was right there in the open:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch

Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”

It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.

Why anyone thought that a presidential election - even a fair one - would change the situation dramatically is beyond me. What this election has rather amazingly done is make a bad situation not only worse, but very likely untenable.

But I will say one thing, I tend to agree with Andrew that withdrawal is not an option - but only in the immediate term. The United States needs to begin thinking about a drawdown from Afghanistan, but for strategic and even moral reasons I can't buy into the idea that we should get out now. I'm not convinced that a Taliban-run Afghanistan is an existential threat to the US, but that doesn't mean any one of us should want that to occur. Not only would it be a disaster for the Afghan people, but I fear that it would have a destabilizing impact on the region. I also don't think it's realistic to expect or want the US military presence to end overnight. We still have enemies along the Af/Pak border who want to do great harm to the United States.

The key is to reframe the current mission. That means surrendering the dreams of fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan a la the Iraq surge narrative.  It means thinking less about COIN and more about containment. It means putting more military pressure on the Taliban and more political pressure on Pakistan to target Afghan Taliban safe havens across the Durand line. It means speeding up the process of training the Afghan military and police so that they can at least hold their own versus the Taliban.

I'll have more to say on this later, but really above all, it means being realistic about what the US can hope to achieve in Afghanistan. We are discovering once again - as we did in Iraq - that there are significant limitations on American power and political will; that military force is only so effective in helping us meet our political goals and that our intentions must be matched by our capabilities. I just hope that Andrew's public recognition of these challenges and limitations will push others to follow suit.


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"The combined U.S. and Afghan mission is to provide security for population centers along the Helmand river valley and to connect local citizens with their legitimate government while establishing stable and secure conditions for national elections scheduled in August as well as to enhance security in the future," said Sergeant Charles Marsh, a spokesman for the U.S. led coalition.

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