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December 01, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - It's Here!!! Version UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

Several months ago when I started writing the AMCW I did so out of the fear that the Obama Administration - against its better wishes - was at risk of deeply enmeshing itself in a military and political quagmire that was not in US vital national interests. At the time US policy seemed adrift and there was a yawning chasm between what the President was saying about Afghanistan and what was happening on the ground.

Tonight this debate is about to come full circle as only 8 months after the President laid out his Af/Pak policy he is preparing to announce a new and more robust engagement in Afghanistan that will, in many respects, represent Mission Creep in Afghanistan as national policy.

Now, for who has bothered to read DA and my various rantings over the past 8 months they can make a pretty good guess of how I feel about this. Fundamentally, I think having 100,000 troops in Afghanistan - and spending $100 billion a year - will distract the US from more important foreign policy goals and will continue to allow the threat of terrorism to distort and subvert our national security debates. What's more I don't believe that the threat from al Qaeda or even a reconstituted Taliban in Afghanistan merits the costs that we now appear prepared to pay. Fundamentally, I think the focus on population centric counter-insurgency is a tactical mistake and is based on an ahistorical view of how counter-insurgencies work and the capabilities of the US military in fighting them. And politically, I fear that it will undermine the efforts of a truly progressive president.

But that is neither here nor there at this point. The decision has been made. Continuing to complain that it is a mistake won't serve much purpose. And of course, I must also recognize that the person tasked with making this decision about strategy in Afghanistan might be making the right one.

Reading the New York Times today has offered me some glimmers of hope. The deployment of US troops will be sped up over the next six months in an effort to take back the military initiative from the Taliban. This seems like a smart approach and a recognition that until the Taliban are pushed back on their heels it will be difficult to lay the groundwork for any sort of serious political reconciliation.

Of course, the success of such an effort will depend on the ability of the US and NATO to train an Afghan Army.  Again, I like what I'm hearing about pairing Afghan units with US military units and empowering local militias. Not sure the latter will be the best approach to increasing long-term stability in the country, but in the near term it may do an important job of securing US interests. However, I continue to be dismayed by the focus on securing the population in Kandahar and Helmand province next door - and worry that our military leadership is prioritizing the wrong population areas.

But in the end, we'll need to wait to hear what the President says tonight.

Going forward, it's critical that progressives (and others!) hold the Administration's feet to the fire on the  strategy being announced tonight. I think a few things will be key: how closely is the Administration adhering to its own benchmarks denoting success, is there progress on getting the Pakistanis to crack down on Afghan Taliban safe havens, are there signs that Karzai is not only tackling corruption but devoting resources to a counter-insurgency fight and the performance of the Afghan military. Without significant progress on these fronts it's hard to see the President's strategy bearing fruit in Afghanistan.

In the end, I think the President is making a mistake in deepening our engagement in Afghanistan - and may be dealing a fatal blow to the hopes many of us had that he would "change the mindset" of American foreign policy. But the decision has been made; the best that those of us who oppose this policy can do, is not only minimize its damage, but try to make it work.

UPDATE: The Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch goes West. I'll be debating Max Boot on the President's strategy in Afghanistan on KPCC's Air Talk with Larry Mantle so give a listen here.


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