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November 17, 2010

Containment 2.0
Posted by Eric Martin

Joshua Foust's piece on the increasingly public wrangling over the future of Afghanistan policy ahead of the upcoming review this December is as witty as it is insightful.  He tells of competing camps within the national security establishment jockeying  to shape perceptions and public opinion in order to bend the arc of Afghanistan policy toward their respective desired policy imperatives: with some pushing to prolong the conflict indefinitely, while others stress the need to commence the disengagement/withdrawal process.

Despite this apparent tension, or maybe because of it, it is certainly possible that the Obama administration, again, decides upon a little from column A and a little from column B.

Nevertheless, against this contested backdrop, Obama is poised to make several key replacements of some of his most senior national security personnel including, not least, Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen.  With these parallel processes unfolding in near unison, the battle for control of Afghan policy might serve as an indication of which direction the Obama administration foreign policy will tack in the larger sense.  Or at least, it could. 

In that sense, Patrick Porter's call for a shift to a newly conceived "containment" policy vis-a-vis al-Qaeda is well timed to address both the micro- and macrocosm of Obama's foreign policy crossroads: 

At its best, it is a practical idea. It holds that, without exhausting or overextending ourselves, we can bound a threat and curtail its ability to operate, then wait patiently for it to wither into an irrelevance or nuisance. It works well with a self-defeating enemy, be it the Soviet Union with its doomed Marxist-Leninist system and imperial overstretch, or al-Qaida, a movement that habitually alienates the very Muslims it claims to represent. Containment is not only about outlasting the enemy, but about keeping costs down and avoiding self-defeating behaviour. [...]

It's time for restraint over activism, for power conservation over its expenditure, for doing no harm over doing good. It means combating terrorism with ordinary police work and intelligence sharing and calibrated disruption. We should focus our military most on what it does most effectively: secure our territory and sea lanes, deter other states and exist as a wise insurance policy for emergencies. Let's try that for the next 10 years, and see where it takes us.

It also means being restrained in how we think. The world may be chaotic. But we are part of that chaos. Except in atypical circumstances, the military is not a surgical tool of political engineering, but a bludgeon wielded by specialists in violence. We therefore don't have the power to alter the political condition of others at our own timetable. 

Porter not only extols the virtues of containment, he summarizes the enormous downsides of the alternative, activist approach:

As a matter of cost, it generates expensive and protracted commitments. Entanglement and intervention usually cost more and take longer than we think. President Bill Clinton said US troops would be in Bosnia for only 12 months, but they were there for 10 years. The Taliban, we were told years ago, were a busted flush. The overestimation of our power and the underestimation of resistance has been a signature tune of the war on terror.

And there are other dangers. What if, in appointing ourselves as world police, we are agents of chaos rather than order? Our activism will probably have perverse results, unintended consequences and blowback. It could create accidental guerrillas. It could drive neighbouring countries into new confrontations with us. Democracy promotion can promote communal violence or unwelcome new regimes. Evidence of these dangers litters the decade.

Confident activism carries an added danger of moral hazards. Adroit armed groups can exploit and escalate conflicts to draw us in, using their victimhood strategically to wag the dog.

...Those who believe we should counter terror this way do not intend endless war. But that is where their logic leads. If Yemen tomorrow, what of Somalia or Nigeria or the Sudan, other potential incubators of terrorist networks?

Radical Islam feeds on many things and is not reducible to a reaction against western interlopers. Richards is right in that respect – militant jihad will always be with us. But military occupation energises and flatters it. And if we follow terrorists with battalions everywhere they go, it concedes to them the initiative to bleed us further.

It has long bee the stated goal of al-Qaeda (since before 9/11) to goad us into overreactions, and thus bleed our resources us in such a manner.  While the desired al-Qaeda outcome is unlikely - we are more resilient than their estimation, and will not go bankrupt in the process - perhaps we should reconsider whether complying with the al-Qaeda playbook is such as prudent course regardless.

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