Squaring the Circle in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan isn't a major front in partisan political struggles, so it's substantially slipped off the radar. But the U.S. military is already in the early phases of what will soon (exactly how soon is secret, of course) be a major new offensive in the Taliban stronghold province of Kandahar, and most indications are that it's going to go badly. The problems with the planned operation are in some respects complicated, but they mostly boil down to the fact that the best evidence available -- like an Army-commissioned poll reported on by Wired's Nathan Hodge on April 16 -- indicates that the local population wants nothing to do with it. The Taliban is more trusted than the local government: 85 percent of Kandaharis describe them as "our Afghan brothers," and 94 percent say it would make more sense to negotiate with the Taliban than to intensify fighting. Naturally, we're going in guns blazing.

Or, to be fair, we probably won't be. Instead, all indications are that in keeping with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dictates, the operation will be undertaken with the utmost attention to local sentiment and counterinsurgency principles. The problem -- which is a microcosm for our strategy in Afghanistan writ large -- is that there seems to be much more interest in demonstrating the utility of counterinsurgency in action than in recognizing that COIN principles point to simply not launching the operation.

After all, the polling indicates that the battle for the loyalty of the population has already been decisively lost. Turning the situation around would, if possible, be an impressive achievement. But it would be impressive mostly in the same sense that climbing Mount Everest is impressive -- impressively difficult rather than impressive because it achieves anything particularly vital.

And part of what makes it so difficult is that our basic posture is riddled with contradictions. A recent report from the Institute for the Study of War, Kimberly Kagan’s counterinsurgency-oriented neoconnish think tank, concluded that "Ahmed Wali Karzai's influence over Kandahar is the central obstacle to any of [International Security Assistance Force]'s governance objectives." Who's Ahmed Wali Karzai? Why, he's governor of the province! He's also the brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Establishing the authority of the Karzai brothers' national and provincial governments in the face of the fact that Karzai himself is a key impediment to our goals would be a neat trick -- but so would drawing a square circle.

And, indeed, Joe Klein recently reported that "the level of optimism emanating from ... McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul stands in near delusional contrast to the situation in Kandahar as it is being experienced by troops and civilian workers on the ground."

Klein attributes McChrystal's high hopes to his background in special operations and to the fact (if it is a fact; it's hard to know) that secret special-forces missions are being extremely successful at killing midlevel Taliban leaders whom McChrystal thinks may be obscuring the political issues. A more disturbing possibility is that information simply isn't filtering correctly. I've heard stories of midlevel administrators professing ignorance of the bad polling news, and of top policy-makers learning things from magazine articles that somehow weren't in their official classified briefings. These sorts of problems can arise in large, hierarchical organizations -- which the U.S. military certainly is -- in which superiors depend on subordinates for information, but subordinates know that the incentives aren't always there to push bad news up the chain of command.

I worry that Afghanistan is being conducted too much as a proving ground for counterinsurgency concepts without enough attention paid to what can be accomplished at a reasonable price.

Concluding that there's no particularly good reason for the United States to undertake a major military operation in a province where we're not wanted on behalf of a government so corrupt that its own leader is described as a major impediment to our obstacles need not mean abandoning the country to the Taliban. The realistic alternative would be to simply focus our efforts on where we are wanted. Afghanistan is an ethnically and ideologically diverse country, much of it has no desire to be once again ruled by the Taliban, and we have a strong moral obligation to help those people as well as a practical interest in demonstrating our capability to provide help when asked. But nothing about that requires us to launch a likely futile new offensive in hostile territory. If anything, it calls for the opposite. If we insist on pursuing a long-odds approach, then sooner or later the voters will start paying attention again, the anti-war backlash will be fierce, and it will be politically impossible to sustain any kind of commitment to Afghanistan.

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