President Obama has a big AfPak day today, with much of his schedule reportedly devoted to a wide-ranging debate about the strategic options. Listening to the debate in the media, I think we can all agree that Obama should be impeached if he doesn't have daily meetings with General McChrystal before a live studio audience. I do wonder whether that's enough though... perhaps he should also be meeting daily with the local commanders, and maybe some grunt soldiers? And what about the civilians? If he were truly serious about Afghanistan, he would surely be taking the time to talk to all of them. And maybe even an Afghan or two? Nah, let's not be silly here.
Because the whole thing is silly. The Obama administration is doing a surprisingly good job of taking its time to work through all aspects of a devilishly difficult foreign policy problem. All perspectives are being heard, all considerations -- political and strategic -- are being weighed, and the results are not pre-cooked. Nobody seriously thinks that waiting a few weeks will make a material difference. The only ones in a rush, it seems, are those who favor the escalation decision and didn't want to see this kind of full discussion --- and that strikes me as a tell.
As I think I've made clear, I am skeptical of the argument for an immediate escalation. But I can also see a strong argument for doing it now and in full force if it is to be done -- though I would point out that John Nagl, a leading advocate of escalation, said at GW yesterday that Afghanistan couldn't even absorb more than 25,000 more troops in 2010. There are strong arguments on all sides of the debate -- not "both sides", as there are more than two options. Oddly enough, given its prominence in the arguments of those who favor escalation, "withdrawal" is not one of the options being considered. At the risk of repeating myself, as the debate unfolds, here are the questions I would like to see asked and answered before a decision is reached:
- Governance. COIN doctrine and common sense dictate that a legitimate, effective host government is essential for counter-insurgency to succeed. Afghanistan has not only just gone through a massively fraudulent election which badly compromises any claims to legitimacy for the Karzai government, but also is deeply riven by corruption at all levels and faces a legacy of some thirty years of civil war, anarchy, and devolution of power to the local level. Why should we expect COIN to work if one of its essential pillars is so deeply lacking? This should not be a throwaway line in the last paragraph -- it should be front and center. How will COIN-escalation work without governance, and how will it increase the odds of improved governance?
- Why now? While Gen. McChrystal and everyone else make a good case that conditions in Afghanistan are terrible, few claim that the situation is in immediate danger of collapsing. Given the fallout of the elections and the uncertain political situation, why not wait and see how things shake out politically while beginning to implement COIN at the local level with available resources?
- Why is the current request "all in"? Is there any serious reason to believe that the current requests -- whether 40,000 or some other figure -- will be adequate to the task? From a distance, it looks like that high number may have been reached by looking around for available troops and then working backwards. But if that's not the case, then why is this number -- and only this number -- the appropriate one for giving the highest chance of success? And why will we not be back in one year having the same debate?
- What about Pakistan? If it is true as everyone lately seems to suggest that Pakistan is the real problem, not Afghanistan, then why is COIN-escalation in Afghanistan the best way to solve the problems in Pakistan? Are there other ways to deal with the problems in Pakistan which do not require COIN-escalation? What are the prospects that COIN-escalation in Afghanistan will make things worse rather than better in Pakistan?
- Metrics. Not just for judging success/progress, but something else. For everyone involved in the debate -- including me -- what specific developments, metrics, or events would lead you to change your mind? What are the things which, if observed over the next year, would lead you to support a different policy? For me, it's perhaps the consolidation of a more legitimate Afghan political order and stronger evidence that Afghans and Pakistanis shared America's conception of interests. For Steve Biddle yesterday, it was the opposite: evidence that 12-18 months of sustained American efforts had not improved Afghan governance or political legitimacy. For Nagl, it was Pakistan giving up its nuclear weapons (?).
Yesterday John Nagl said that we shouldn't think of the Afghanistan war having gone on 8 years, since COIN was only now being tried. Well, the debate about the Afghan war has really only been going on for a couple of months. Let's give that some time too. And with that, I am hitting the road for a week.