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June 17, 2011

Still Confused About Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

About two years ago when I first started writing about Afghanistan here at Democracy Arsenal I wrote a blog post titled "Confused in Afghanistan." Since then my confusion has only grown and this week as I watch from afar the White House debate on Afghanistan it seems to have hit "peak befuddlement" point. 

LBJ I can't, for the life of me, understand how there is even a serious debate about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. That we are debating 'barely any withdrawal' versus a 'smaller withdrawal of about 10,00-15,000 troops' rather than the latter and a much larger withdrawal or a shift in strategy toward a more counter-terrorism oriented approach is baffling to me. This is as close to a political and strategic no-brainer as you are ever going to find.

Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly. Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan remain unmolested (at the same that the US-Pakistan relations havve hit probably their lowest point since September 11th); the Afghan government remains as corrupt and feckless as ever, with little apparent inclination to initiate much needed governance reforms; and the ASNF and police appear no closer to being given major security responsibilities, particularly in insecure areas. While the
Taliban is clearly on its heels it's also relatively obvious that they remain a resilient insurgent force able to operate effectively across broad swaths of the country.

In short, there is precious little evidence that the much touted military gains that we've seen over the past six months can be sustained; and there is even less evidence that the Pakistani government or our Afghan allies (when they are not killing American soldiers) share the same interests and objectives that we do.

A lack of progress on these strategic inputs should hardly be a huge surprise (they were relatively obvious 18 months ago); but it's worth noting that the same people advising the President on what to do next were confidently predicting success in the Fall of 2009. Remember this conversation:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

It's also worth keeping in mind that back in the summer of 2009, Stanley McChrystal (and his enablers in the think tank world) went to great lengths to argue that the current metrics being used to tout success in Afghanistan, body counts and dead Taliban commanders, should be de-emphasized. Rather, as the argument went, civilian casualties were the single most important metric for success - and reducing them must be the focal point of US efforts in Afghanistan. That May 2011 was the single deadliest month for Afghan civilians since the UN began keeping track of such numbers is another reminder of how much we should trust and/or listen to earlier proponents of escalation in Afghanistan about what next steps should be taken today (short answer: not much).

But let's put aside the obvious evidence of military stalemate and strategic failure - how about the politics of the war? In just the past week, 27 Senators of the President's own party have signed a letter urging "sizable" troops withdrawals from Afghanistan; this follows on a vote in the House in which all but 8 Democratic Congressmen voted for an amendment calling for the same thing. And even the Republicans are jumping ship: on Monday human political weather vane Mitt Romney called for a quicker drawdown of US troops from the fight. This dovetails with public opinion polling, which suggests that most Americans are tired of the war and want the troops to start coming home. If there is a political constituency anywhere outside the US military for continuing this fight I'm at a loss to think of one. Finally, this entire debate is taking place a mere month or so after the United States killed Osama bin Laden, which gave the President a rare political opportunity to pursue a policy of de-escalation in the war on terrorism.

You throw all these data points into the mix and what is the takeaway: that it would be strategic and political malpractice to throw good money after bad and continue with a policy that is both failing and is deeply unpopular across the political spectrum. The notion that the President would give the military six months or more to pursue the current policy is a hair short of insanity. (Here is a much better way to proceed, Mr. President).

He does that and we may need to start calling our President, 'Barack Baines Obama.'

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Maybe Obama believes that Petraeus's narrow technocratic solution can work in Afghanistan. I see an errie similiarity between Obama's education policy and his approach to Afghanistan. Obama's educational policy wants to judge schools and teachers by test scores while overlooking the fact that some students fail due to poverty, learning disabilities,and mental illness. While Obama advocates a military solution that is based only on statistics, but which ignores the political instability and tribal differences within Afghanistan. Obama favors these technocratic solutions that transcend politics but ignore reality.

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Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly.

Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly.Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly.Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly.

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which suggests that most Americans are tired of the war and want the troops to start coming home. If there is a political constituency anywhere outside the US military for continuing this fight I'm at a loss to think of one. Finally, this entire debate is taking place a mere month or so after the United States killed Osama bin Laden, which gave the President a rare political opportunity to pursue a policy of de-escalation in the war on terrorism.

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On that issue, we have a problem of how we look at / talk about foreign aid, and Brooks' wide-roaming critique is symptomatic. Just look at the different rubrics he mentions in his assessment of Afghanistan: health, education, economic growth, stability, violence, employment of the most highly educated, and corruption / governance. Apart from any assumptions about links between quality of life and instability -- Brooks' main line of criticism -- to judge aid effectiveness fairly we need to distinguish among the varied objectives of different aid efforts, and overcome our tendency to lump them together.

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