To Stay or Not to Stay: That is the Question

September 4, 2009

Washington -and particularly the corner of it which houses the foreign policy pundits and pontificators- has been abuzz with opinions on Afghanistan, the new strategic assessment presented by Gen. McChrystal, and with anticipation of the upcoming review of the strategy this fall.

The noise conveniently falls into two distinctly demarcated -and familiar- frequency ranges: those that I like to refer to as the ‘defeat-mongers’ (and if the word has no previous references in the US political lexicon, I humbly reserve the boasting rights of having coined it) and those who are in favor of staying the course and not walking way from Afghanistan -again.

The defeat-mongers seem to be led, oddly enough, by Sen. Feingold (D-Wis) who for all his admired and reasonable policy positions at home, seems to have made it his calling to bring the troops home, come what may. He does not say that of course in those words and polishes it saying this does not amount to walking away from Afghanistan. The truth is that it does. Plus, the senator is guilty of some gross generalizations, using outdated data, and comparisons that simply do not hold. Consider:

He cites a 2007 poll to support his view that most Afghans do not support foreign military presence. This is outdated data, twice challenged this year by successive IRI polls showing first 30% and then a staggering 60% of Afghans support of foreign and US military presence in the country to secure it and root out the Taliban -which, by the way, according to the same polls stood at just around 6% popularity rating.

He subscribes to that annoying old adage of ‘graveyard of empires’ by once again equating the current international presence to the imperial adventures of the British and Soviet occupiers. This equation is so wrong I do not want to waste valuable cyberspace in refuting it. Instead go and read Peter Bergen’s earlier piece Graveyard Myths in the NYtimes. The circumstances, motives, methods, and the prevailing international relations atmosphere are all different with this effort and simply do not compare to the British and Soviet invasions of yore -and make no mistakes about it: Afghans understand the differences.

The good senator’s lead is followed by columnist George F. Will who writes derisively of the revised Afghanistan strategy calling it ‘New Deal 2.0 in Afghanistan’ and thereby stoking the American right’s pathologies about wasteful democratic policymakers, this time in its international incarnation. He concludes by calling for a substantial reduction of forces to serve “a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” Right. The same formula that is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties, the turning tide of goodwill against foreign forces, and the souring of relationships between Washington and Kabul. And “Pakistan, a nation that actually matters”? As opposed to the one where a decade of neglect spawned a network of terrorists that instrumented the attacks on numerous Western cities, and then went on to destabilize Pakistan and the region? We are talking about Afghanistan -not Iraq that was variously derided by commentators as a nation that did not matter in the war against terror. We are talking about the ‘original front’ on the war against terror.

Fortunately, these two’s lone voice of ‘calling it quits’ is sufficiently refuted by a number of good pieces on Afghanistan and the importance of staying the course there -including in the same WSJ publication:

First, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings and Bruce Riedel of the new Obama Af-Pak strategy fame ask What’s Right with Afghanistan, and find that plenty is: from the way the people of Afghanistan want success in this joint effort to defeat the enemy and are still largely pro-international presence (backed by credible, recent polls) to the performance of the ANSFs, the state of the economy despite all that still needs to be done, and the elections. The same elections that brought out Afghans in their millions in an unprecedented display of how the political paradigms have changed in Afghanistan for the better, as Jawed Ludin argues in the Guardian. The same elections which, regrettably, are being overshadowed by shameful international skepticism and doubt.

The authors correctly point out that:

Democracies sometimes talk themselves out of keeping up the faith in tough situations, and we should avoid any such tendency towards defeatism, especially so early in the execution of the Obama administration’s new military/civilian/economic strategy, which combines stronger and more widespread counterinsurgency measures with increased nation-building efforts.

In a recent gathering wherein Gen. McChrystal unveiled a preview of his report to a select audience of Afghan stakeholders (itself very telling of how the US is shifting its way of doing business here by sharing more of the plans for the future of this country with a key segment of the stakeholders -i.e. the Afghans themselves) this author raised a similar point; that soon after the report’s unveiling and going public, it will likely see a barrage of critiques from various quarters, and that a good part of any such plan is to see it through to successful implementation. (To continue the self-indulged digression, this author also quoted Churchill’s memorable quib on how you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option. Of course this was said in its positive connotation, and with a certain degree of wishful thinking that this time and this revised plan represent the right thing in US policy making towards Afghanistan. It certainly has the makings of one -particularly the focus on protecting the population and non-military interventions, including a plan for economic development and jobs creation.)

Another WSJ Editorial raises somewhat of a similiar point, asking whether “our current Commander in Chief has the nerve of his predecessor to withstand a Washington panic” and the calls for the US to leave Afghanistan. The editorial correctly ties the prospects of a precipituous US departure to a likely backtracking by Pakistan on its recent fight with the Taliban insurgents there, a combination that will certainly turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorism once again.

On the same date, another editorial in the Washington Post agrees that despite the recent setbacks in Afghanistan, the struggle there is worth continuing:

Yet if Mr. Obama provides adequate military and civilian resources, there’s a reasonable chance the counterinsurgency approach will yield something better than stalemate, as it did in Iraq. The Taliban insurgency is not comparable to those that earlier fought the Soviets and the British in Afghanistan. Surveys show that support for its rule is tiny, even in its southern base. Not everything in Mr. Karzai’s government is rotten: U.S. officials have reliable allies in some key ministries and provincial governorships, and the training of the Afghan army — accelerated only recently — is going relatively well. Stabilizing the country will require many years of patient effort and the pain of continued American casualties. Yet the consequences of any other option are likely to be far more dangerous for this country.

Finally, and as if on cue, somebody had to come up with a call for some sort of a “middle way” between these two camps. David Ignatious writes in Washington Post that the decision on what to do next with Afghanistan (i.e. quit or stay) is tentamount to “rolling the dice”, as neither option is clean and straightforward and present merits that are convincing enough to bowl over the other side; and that at the end of the day, the US might have to decide to “both shoot and talk – a strategy based on the idea that we can bolster our friends and bloody our enemies enough that, somewhere down the road, we can cut a deal.” However, despite the convincing middle-path trappings of it, Mr. Ignatious’s solution is no more than a re-casting of what has already been said by Senator Feignold and George Will, albeit with greater forthrightness.

The debate and the buzz is likely to continue and to build to a feverish pitch as the US administration considers its options in Afghanistan. With Iraq largely off many radars, the loud noise, mud-slinging, and endless debate that we saw occupy TV screens, opinion pages and most political conversations between 2003 and 2008 is now focused on Afghanistan. The real side of all of this debate, however, plays out in Afghanistan and not in the American op-ed wars of the left, the right and the middle. Any policy preferences bear life and death consequences for the people of Afghanistan. And the large majority of the people of Afghanistan today seem to be in favor of their foreign friends mustering the endurance and courage to stay the course, difficult as it may be. One hopes that this view from the ground goes into the calculus of that final policy decision.