Thursday, November 12, 2009

Should We Stay or Should We Go

Afghanistan. The 'other' war has come center stage recently as the Administration considers how to proceed. More troops? Less troops? Pull out? Certainly no shortage of opinions. The senior commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has called for some 40,000 additional troops to prevent 'failure' of the mission there. Now President Obama is weighing these options and is expected to announce a plan in the next few week or so.

Much has been made of how the troop surge in Iraq helped reduce violence but, we must be careful about making general assumptions that the same plan would work in Afghanistan. The two countries are vastly different. Contrary to Iraq, Afghanistan has minimal infrastructure. This, coupled with mountainous terrain, makes the same sort of mass troop movements and area control techniques useless. The non-urban population is highly dispersed and more beholden to local leaders than the central government in Kabul. So a surge of troops would almost certainly be much less likely to have the kind of affect seen in Iraq. Put simply, these issues would make this a dramatically more difficult situation, no matter the troop numbers.

Another major issue is the drug trade. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a major opium hub. This brings in a whole new complication to the situation. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 1/3 of the country's Gross Domestic Product is from Poppy and illicit drug production. So, basically, one out of every three farms is dedicated to growing drug crops. Not a good thing for stability, since with drugs comes corruption and violence. With drug crops making up such a significant portion of the country's economy, simply destroying the poppy fields is hardly going to solve things. The farmers need to make money to live and currently poppy production is the most lucrative crop. This only adds to the political and factional violence already plaguing the country.  And of course the various extremist and anti-goverment groups use the drug trade to finance themselves. With this much drug money floating around, it doesn't take a Harvard scholar to tell you that this pretty much guarantees  governmental corruption at the highest levels. There have even been numerous accusations of Hamid Karzai's own brother being heavily involved in the drug trade. So any military operations will have to consider the drug problem in addition to the factional and political issues.

One thing that is similar, though probably still on a much larger scale than Iraq, is the simmering and often explosive, anti-foreigner sentiment. While there is undoubtedly some of this everywhere in the country, it is most rooted in the rural areas where the tribal system is in full control. These are people who remember the last time a foreign power swept into the country in 1980. And as much as we may draw a sharp distinction between ourselves and the Soviets, to the Afghans, the line is much more blurry. This is something that America and the West seem exceptionally hard headed about. We keep believing that because we have good intentions that they should understand and let us go about our business. But our intentions are of no concern to them. All they care about is that foreign soldiers are running free in their country. Attacking their people. We seem to have a lot of trouble looking at our 'interventions' from the point of view of those we are 'liberating'. Things look a lot differently when you are on the other end of the assault rifle.

That we have a working relationship with the Karzi government carries little weight either. Karzi's popularity is on a low ebb and has never been very strong at all in the tribal areas. The recent election was rife with accusations of fraud and ended up so close as to require a run-off election. But the run-off election never happened due to the opposition candidate withdrawing at the last minute. Most recently, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has reportedly advised the President that  he is unconvinced that the Afghan leadership is committed to rooting out governmental corruption and that he has concerns about committing more US troops. Eikenberry is a retired Lt. General and former commander in Afghanistan which gives his opinion even more weight.  All of this casts a shadow over Karzi and his new government. Aside from these accusations, Karzi has his own internal problems to deal with and has to balance them with our needs. He is bound by political and factional necessities that limit or may even prevent him from fully supporting US and NATO operations and requests. Put simply, he has to worry about staying in power.

What it comes down to is this. The question of whether to add more troops or not is putting the cart before the horse. The real questions are, first, what is our ultimate goal and, second, can we realistically achieve it? If our goal is to eradicate the extremist elements, then we may indeed need to infuse more troops into the country. But is this a realistic goal? I'm not debating the morals of right and wrong. The question is, can it really be done, considering what we know about Afghanistan? We are dealing with a nation that has a highly factionalized tribal system outside the cities, with minimal infrastructure, very rugged terrain, a central government without any real power in the outlying provinces and a population that doesn't really want Western troops there at all. Some have simply pointed to General McChrystal's request for more troops and declared that we should listen to the commander in the field. But we must remember that McChrystal is looking at this from a purely military perspective, based on his current tasking. At the end of the day, McChrystal is simply trying to achieve the goals the Administration has set. Which brings us back to the question of what the ultimate goal should be.

This brings me to, what I believe, is one of the most important issues. The US military. Since 2001, when we began our post-9/11 military operations, we began deploying major segments of the US military to Afghanistan and later Iraq. These deployments have resulted in, roughly, some 150,000 troops in Iraq and some 60,000 in Afghanistan. This is a significant portion of America's available military forces, including Guard and Reserve units. Enough of a percentage of troops to require that units be rotated back into action over and over and over, with only short breaks in between. And lets not forget that we've already had troops in Afghanistan longer than we had troops in Europe during WWII. While combat operations are certainly not as consistently intense as they were then, the stress level of troops constantly on guard for insurgent attacks is great. The pressure this has put on the troops and their families has been tremendous. We must remember that our military is not a machine that can be turned on or off and simply oiled once and awhile. These are our fellow citizens and they cannot be run through this sort of high stress situation for years at a time without there being a corrosive effect on them personally and on combat effectiveness professionally. The previous Administration seemed to see the military as a resource that could be used indefinitely. Simply numbers on a chart.  But as suicides and post traumatic stress spike, and combat stress spills over into off duty violence the government must realize that we are running our troops ragged. They are not an infinite resource and the longer they exist in this purgatory of repeating deployments with only the minimal time home with families, the more damage we will do to them personally and to the military as a fighting force.

While I would very much like to see the extremist elements suppressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, wanting it is a long way from having it. Can we, realistically, hope to eradicate these elements? Especially considering that, to them, there really isn't much of a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus adding in a complex political side to an already messy internal situation. Personally, I don't see how we can do too much more than we have so far without at least doubling the current troop strength. An additional forty thousand will help, but I don't see how it will solve anything in the long run. The Soviets put in upwards of 105,000 men, at any one time,  during their invasion and occupation, and had complete control of the government, yet they couldn't pacify the country.  There is a reason Afghanistan is called the 'graveyard of empires'. This is a region that gives the insurgent defender every advantage over an invader. We need to consider what more we can realistically achieve. Not just what we would like to or feel we should achieve. It's time for some pragmatic analysis as to our goals, the means we have to apply and, most important of all, the likelihood of success.

So, what do I think? Well, while there are major differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, they have some things in common. First, and foremost, we must accept the fact that we cannot 'Win' in either country. I know how tough this is to wrap our heads around, as America is very much into winning. To 'Win' would require us to control most of the variables. However, even at the best of times we only control one part of a complex equation. We can suppress armed insurgents to a degree, we can provide expertise, we can provide intelligence assets and we can offer ourselves to support the central government. That's it. We will never eradicate the extremist elements in Afghanistan. The only way that would even be vaguely possible is if we stationed troops in every single village, town and city in the entire country. Essentially a police state. This is, of course, ludicrous. We will never convince the Afghan people to support the Karzi government if they don't feel trust in it themselves. It's their government, made up of fellow Afghans. The impassioned words of an outsider are not going to convince them. That kind of trust has to be built by Karzi, not the West. Secondly, we may very well be starting almost as many fires as we are putting out. Every single time a bomb or missile kills a civilian, we ratchet up the distrust and discontent of the people against us. You and I know that even modern, precision munitions cannot completely avoid collateral damage. We may have taken out an entire Al Qaeda cell, but all the Afghans know is that America killed their son/daughter/father/mother. Each time this happens, we move moderates towards the extremist camp. And we move another angry person to pick up a gun.

The bottom line is that this is not our country. It is not a Western country. It has a social order that is almost alien to most Americans. This is a region which has seen, time and again, world powers using them as nothing more than a spot on a Risk game board. Just a colored shape on the map to be occupied for strategic or monetary gain. They know we are not there out of an altruistic desire to make their lives better. Whether we do good there or not, it will not transform their hearts and minds about us. Pragmatically, it is probably time to start moving towards the exit, just as it is in Iraq. I feel that we have done about all the good we realistically can and that it's up to Afghanistan and it's people to take it from here. To do anything more would require the West to pour so many troops into the country as to make it little more than a client state, with a continuous insurgent threat. It's their choices that will decide the direction of the country from here on out. We cannot win this conflict. Only the Afghan people can win it.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you actually thought about the subject matter, providing logical arguments with some factual basis. Well written, best one yet! But I have to strongly disagree with your closing statement since it offers no viable alternatives to achieve the "ultimate goal".


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