My mixed feelings about the war in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Nov. 30 2009 12:50 PM

Confessions of an Uncertain Columnist

My mixed feelings about the war in Afghanistan.

US Marines of 2nd Battalion 2 Marines of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade walk back to their base in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Soldiers in Afghanistan

Columnists are supposed to have firm views and express them with steadfast certainty. Since I write a column called "War Stories," the least a reader might expect from me is a clear opinion on whether the United States should escalate or pull out of the war in Afghanistan.

Recently, a friend told me that he couldn't quite figure out where I stood on the issue. I replied that I couldn't quite figure it out, either.

My columns, I confess, have hedged, hemmed, and hawed around the question. When I've proposed or endorsed a specific strategy, I've carefully noted that it's an approach the president should take if he decides to deepen U.S. involvement in the war. Sometimes, I've ended the piece with a caveat or a pointed question that suggests deeper involvement might not be such a good idea. Yet I've stopped short of taking a stance on whether he should or shouldn't send more troops or whether doing so is or isn't a good idea.

That's because, when it comes to this war, I am the one thing that a columnist probably shouldn't be—ambivalent. I've studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I'm not sure what I would do.

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As with confronting most messes in life, the initial impulse is to flee. But if we simply pulled out, it's a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they'd care to, in a matter of weeks. True, the Taliban are not the same as al-Qaida, but there's little doubt that they would provide sanctuary and alliance (as they did after the Soviets were ousted), and this would strengthen al-Qaida in its struggle against Pakistan, the United States, and others.

One might dispute the significance of this, at least for its direct danger to the United States. Al-Qaida, after all, can plan attacks on U.S. territory from other sanctuaries, even from apartments in Western cities. But it's naive to claim that leaving Afghanistan would have no broader effect.

Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

I am uncomfortable making this case for two reasons. First, it's reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving "credibility" and the "domino theory," for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security; al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

The second reason I'm uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It's easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, "Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President" and "If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised."

But this part of the argument is moot, since, for better or for worse, no higher-ups in the Obama administration have advocated a total pullout. Withdrawal is a tempting option only to the extent that all others seem, at best, only slightly less miserable.

Holding at the current level of troops, with perhaps some slight rejiggering, is another tempting option, but it's also the clearest recipe for war without end. The constant refrain one hears from soldiers and commanders in the field—confirmed by any journalist who spends much time with them—is that they're strained by the shortage of resources. No matter what strategy President Barack Obama decides on—chasing terrorists, protecting population centers, or some combination of the two—there aren't enough troops now to pursue it with much chance of success.

The existing troops can probably hold the Taliban at bay and keep Afghanistan from falling apart, but little more than that. The war then becomes a contest of endurance, and we're not likely to win. (Yes, lots of American troops stayed in West Germany and South Korea for several decades—some remain there still—but they were deterring wars, not fighting and dying in one.)

As for fighting from afar: With a mix of special-operations forces and airstrikes, it's appealing in the abstract, but it neglects the mundane realities of warfare—that you need good intelligence to know who and where the bad guys are, and that to get good intelligence you need troops on the ground, and more than a handful of commandos, to cultivate and earn the local people's trust.

The proposal made a few months ago by Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to focus more on training than on fighting—and to send no more U.S. troops until the Afghan army has grown substantially—makes sense. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that enlarging the Afghan army was the key to success (and to America's exit). In March, when Obama ordered another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, Gates assigned 4,000 of them—the 4th brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, a highly decorated combat unit—specifically to train Afghan soldiers.

However, in this war, "training" is done on the job—not so much by drilling and exercising the Afghan soldiers on bases (though there is some of that) but rather by leading, observing, and fighting alongside them out in the field. In other words, the line between "support troops" and "combat troops," ambiguous to begin with, is fuzzier still here. And at least in the short run (for the next few years), it's unlikely that enough Afghans can be trained quickly enough or thoroughly enough to secure the country on their own.

So we come to the option that President Obama is reportedly going to take, to some degree, in some fashion, in his speech Tuesday night (though press leaks of this sort haven't always been accurate): to send tens of thousands more troops—maybe not the 40,000 extra that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wants, but some number not much smaller.

The key question here is not so much how many more troops Obama sends but, rather, what he decides they should do (and we don't yet know his decision on that point, either). Still, some questions can be raised in advance.

If he decides on a counterinsurgency strategy (which emphasizes protecting the population more than chasing terrorists), the Army field manual's calculations suggest that something like 400,000 troops would be needed—and, even under the most optimistic assumptions, there's no way that U.S., NATO, and Afghan armies combined will amass anywhere near that many forces anytime soon, if ever.

This is why much of the strategy will likely involve cultivating Pashtun tribal leaders to fight the Taliban and prodding relatively moderate Taliban groups to turn against the more militant ones—in short, buying key people off, whether through persuasion, money, weapons, ammunition, logistical support, or the supply of basic services.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has long been saying that success in Afghanistan has to involve, to some extent, striking a deal with enemies. "This is how you end these kinds of conflicts," he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in October 2008. There is, he added, "no alternative to reconciliation."

Petraeus is very agile at this sort of enterprise, as he demonstrated in 2003 in Mosul as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and in 2007, with the "Sunni Awakening," as commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq.

But two concerns arise when mulling the transfer of these notions to Afghanistan. First, Petraeus had something to offer the Iraqi Sunnis. In Mosul, he handed out jobs (for as long as the money lasted, which, alas, wasn't long). In the Awakening, he provided military alliance after the tribal leaders (who initiated the contact) recognized that al-Qaida terrorists posed a greater threat than did the U.S. occupiers. He and McChrystal are now trying to reprise these sorts of deals in Afghanistan, but it's unclear whether they can offer much that's compelling to insurgent or fence-sitting Pashtuns.

Second, as smart as those two generals (and many of their advisers) are, how much do they really know about Afghan tribal politics, which (as they do know) are far more complex than Iraq's ethnic fissures and whose leaders are known to switch sides, and switch back again, at whim or the slightest provocation? (On this latter point, see the opening chapters of Dexter Filkins' 2008 book The Forever War.)

The United States has never fought this kind of war before (unless you count the Philippines, which lasted 40 years and involved a level of brutality that would never be countenanced today). We haven't been fighting this kind of war even in Afghanistan. (As the saying goes, we haven't been fighting for eight years but, rather, for one year, eight years in a row.) Starting to do so now, as even some of the advocates of escalation admit, is a large gamble with short odds.

So here's what it comes down to: This option might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

Which road is less unappetizing? I don't know. That's why I'm ambivalent.

My guess is that President Obama held so many meetings with his national-security advisers on this topic—nine, plus a 10th on Sunday night to get their orders and talking points straight—because he wanted to break through his own ambivalences; because he needed to come up with a reason (not just a rationalization) for doing whatever it is that he's decided to do, some assurance that it really does make sense, that it has a chance of working, so he can defend it to Congress, the nation, and the world with conviction. Let's hope he found something. A columnist can be ambivalent; a president can't be.

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