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November 18, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Price of Escalation Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the American Prospect Tim Fernholz makes a smart argument:

As the debate over Afghanistan has progressed, voices within the administration, military commanders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former officials like Gen. Colin Powell, and pundits like Fred Kaplan have argued that the focus shouldn't be on how many troops are sent to Afghanistan but what they will do when they get there. This is a misleading formulation that eliminates vital strategic options. In reality, the resources the U.S. commits in Afghanistan, in both troops and treasure, should be at the crux of this debate.

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):

If President Obama orders an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will be deploying practically every available U.S. Army brigade to war, leaving few units in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency and further stressing a force that has seen repeated combat deployments since 2002.

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.

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Comments

How do incisive and refreshing posts like this go without comment? I hope your readers are just too busy/important to use their time to reply, because then they would be "decision-makers," and those are exactly the people who need to be reading this.

Thanks for another dead-on reminder to look at the big picture when devising/evaluating foreign policy. My fingers are crossed that Obama will blow the conventional wisdom away by opting for some sort of CT-based transformation of the U.S. mission in Af-Pak, especially in view of the unacceptable corruption in both Kabul and Islamabad.

Still, I'm sadly resigning myself to the thought of more of America's best, brightest, most ideological and capable young individuals being shipped out to die in the desert just when the nation needs them at home the most.

If our special envoy to the region cannot explain precisely what success in Afghanistan looks like then how has the US mission there not become completely unmoored ? I have become more and more convinced, in recent days, that the Administration has no clear sense of what the end game is Afghanistan and what they are trying to achieve there. Day by day we are wading more deeply into what looks like a military and political quagmire for which we have no clear plan for success.

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