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July 06, 2010

Our Lack of Imagination About What To Do in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the weekend, I was catching up on my New Yorker reading and came across George Packer's latest piece on Afghanistan. After about a half dozen paragraphs cogently laying out all the reasons why our current strategy in Afghanistan has not been working - and likely will not work - he makes this flabbergasting statement:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

This is an incredibly frustrating example of the real lack of imagination that seems to define a great deal of commentary about the war in Afghanistan. First of all, the notion that the Taliban would even be able to take over the country - or that would be the country's fate if we didn't maintain the current failing strategy - is just a bizarrely far-fetched notion. As Michael Semple noted in a conference I attended last week there isn't exactly a lot of love for the Taliban in Afghanistan (particularly outside the Pashtun-dominated south and east) and every reason to believe that there are severe limits on the ability of the group to take over wide swaths of the country.

Second, the very idea that the Taliban pose a threat to international security is, for lack of a better word, laughable. Instead of reading David Rodhe and Van Dyk, perhaps George Packer should listen to Leon Panetta say there are only about 50-100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan and then try to figure out why this meager AQ presence requires troops levels of 100,000 troops. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently we lost 100 soldiers alone last month in Afghanistan - more than the entire AQ presence in the country. Simple common sense would suggest that even if the Taliban were able to take over Afghanistan they would be insane to give al Qaeda a safe haven - and what's more the US would clearly have the wherewithal and the inclination to militarily eradicate any significant al Qaeda presence there. The notion that removing our presence from Afghanistan - in its current form - would return the country to pre-9/11 days just seems incredibly simplistic.

Does Packer really believe that our current $100 billion a year commitment is the only means of combating the al Qaeda threat? Does he believe that this is an appropriate and measured response to a terrorist organization that has not launched a major attack against the US in nearly 9 years? 

I continue to be amazed and befuddled that otherwise intelligent people don't see the current mission in Afghanistan as an utterly bizarre over-reaction to whatever limited threat al Qaeda actually poses - and seem congenitally incapable of imagining any other potential US strategy.

For example, Packer argues there are no alternatives to the current policy AND there is no low-cost way to the contain the terrorists who reside in the Hindu Kush.

Here's Sean Kay arguing for a containment strategy

Here's Gilles Dorronsorro making the case for political negotiations

Here's Austin Grant Long making the case for a CT approach

Here's me arguing for an approach that stresses regional prioritization

To be sure these plans each have their flaws and none of them are a silver bullet, but they are clearly alternatives to the current strategy at a far less significant cost.

The fact that folks like Packer - and others in the commentariat - are unable to imagine a world in which we can do something different than a) what we are currently doing or b) getting the hell out of Afghanistan ASAP is just impossible for me to understand. 

There are alternatives to our current, failing strategy in Afghanistan - why is everyone so afraid to talk about them?

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