Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Price of Escalation Version
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at the American Prospect Tim Fernholz makes a smart argument:
This is both right and wrong. On a very basic level, whichever strategy the President decides upon is vitally important to the success of the mission, irrespective of the number of troops he sends. For example, if Obama decides to send more troops in pursuit of General McChrystal's goal of a full-fledged, nationwide counter-insurgency campaign it would be an unmitigated disaster (in my view of course). If he decides to send more troops in pursuit of the short-term strategy of regaining the military initiative from the Taliban and building up the Afghan security forces that is a more defensible approach; although one fraught with danger (again, in my view of course). In other words, not all military footprints will look the same on the ground.
But where Tim is on to something is the extent to which troop levels are inextricably tied to the politics of US policy in Afghanistan and to a larger degree, its impact on US national security writ large. This idea was really brought home in Spencer Ackerman's article in WINDY on the challenge of getting 30-40,000 more troops into Afghanistan (and on an unrelated note though Spencer is morally deficient because of his love for the Yankees and hatred of the Grateful Dead, his reporting on the Afghanistan debate is crushing):
In addition, those troops that General McChrystal claims are vitally needed in the next 12 months probably won't be fully available until the fall or summer of 2010. That means that we could be looking to 2011 or later before we have any clear sense of how these additional troops are affecting the war effort. And of course, even if we decide to leave then getting those soldiers out of Afghanistan will not be easy or immediate. The point here is that if President Obama agrees to General McChrystal's request for more troops, Afghanistan will come to completely dominate his first term foreign policy agenda. Politically, this would create all sorts of problems, particularly with progressives. But I think the real challenge will come to Obama's larger foreign policy agenda.
All that talk in the campaign about changing the mindset of American foreign policy . . . well you can pretty much forget that. One of the things we saw in the Bush Administration and it was certainly my experience in government, presidential administrations have a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time. In other words, 100,000 troops in Afghanistan will suck up so much oxygen that it will almost certainly short-change other important efforts, and what's more, will subvert other goals. Instead of rebuilding AID, you will probably see more of its resources devoted to nation building in Afghanistan instead of long-term development in non-kinetic environments. Shifting the civil/military balance back to the civilian capacity side - good luck with that. Getting more money out of Congress, which is already allocating $65 billion a year for the war in Afghanistan and facing mushrooming budget deficits for those civilian agencies. Not going to happen. Focusing the attention of policymakers on these key issues: even less likely.
In the end, this is the real reason why troop levels matter. There are severe opportunity costs in ramping up our commitment - the most important one will be the dream that Barack Obama could truly transform American foreign policy. We need a President who is thinking about America's post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan future. And that's going to be awfully hard to do in an environment where 100,000 troops in Afghanistan are dominating our foreign policy debates and diverting the attention of policymakers.
I really hope that this thought is in the back of the President's head as he makes a decision on what to do in Afghanistan.