Friday, 13 November 2009

An Afghanistan strategy built on quicksand?

So the US Ambassador to Afghanistan has put a spanner in the works of mission creep in Afghanistan. I don't know why the US military and diplomatic corps don't just publish all their advice on the internet, it seems to end up there in days anyway.

General Eikenberry's memo cautions against a further troop build-up in the face of the continuing dysfunctionality of the Karzai regime. MSNBC reports it as follows:
"That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

In strongly worded classified cables to Washington, Eikenberry said he had misgivings about sending in new troops while there are still so many questions about the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai."
If there is one lesson from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it is that you can't build a modern state on quicksand. And Karzai and his corrupt government are mushy to their very core. What are the chances of him becoming a paragon of virtue? Minimal I would say. President Obama is right to carefully consider whether to send the 40,000 troops requested by ISAF Commander, General Stanley McChrystal. He needs to use any build-up- at the very least as leverage to get change in the Afghanistani government. I would go as far as to suggest that Karzai, despite his election victory, should step down for the simple reason that his incompetence vastly the increases the risk of the troop surge strategy. His other option should be that we leave him to the Taliban. His choice.

Patrick Cockburn argues the moral hazard point forcibly in The Independent today:
"Mr Eikenberry is rightly sceptical about the dispatch of reinforcements to prop up a regime which is more of a racket than an administration. The troops may kill more Taliban, but they will also be their recruiting sergeants. As for the Afghan government, its ill-paid forces will not be eager to fight harder if they can get the Americans and the British to do their fighting for them."
The superb Christina Lamb analysed the situation with customary thoroughness in the Sunday Times last weekend. Here are some highlights.

On the Afghan police:
"As the terrible events of last week show, creating a reliable police force is another huge obstacle. Nato officials estimate that 90% of Afghan police officers are illiterate and a third are drug addicts. Paid just $100 a month for dangerous work — more than 1,000 officers have been killed in the past year — the threat of corruption is high. The rush to expand the force has meant training is minimal and background checks consist merely of two other policemen vouching for them."
On the dilemma facing the Afghan people:
"Most Afghans are on the fence, with the Taliban intimidating them on one side, and corrupt officials and police demanding bribes on the other. In southern Afghanistan there are many cases where locals have called on the Taliban to come back because the police have been raping their young boys or have failed to deal with highway robbers."
The situation is desperate. The potential for serious further losses severe. The chances of success- when Karzai is the only option- are very uncertain. And yet, we can't just walk away and let the country descend into chaos. Equally, getting further and further embroiled in the situation is highly risky.

As I wrote last week on the anniversary of Barack Obama's election victory:
"And beyond America's shores, the most difficult decision of his presidency awaits. The last great progressive reformer, Lyndon B Johnson had his presidency scuppered by Vietnam. It is not melodramatic to suggest that President Obama faces just as serious a choice.

It is a choice that is about life and liberty not politics. The Afghanistan war is going disastrously. President Obama must choose between retrenchment and deeper engagement. A halfway house - and his inner pragmatist does have a tendency to split the difference - will feel unsatisfactory. The big strategic question suggests that he must go with the recommendations of the ISAF commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal or radically change direction.

If he goes for an additional 20,000 troops instead of the 40,000 requested then he will need all his powers of persuasion. Whatever course he chooses he must follow through on the pledge in his victory speech to ‘always be honest with you about the challenges we face.'"
The all or change strategy choice is one that military strategist David Kilcullen outlines in The Guardian today. His preference is for all. I can completely understand why President Obama is torn. There seems to be some shift in his thinking towards minimal additional troops to concentrate on training with almost no additional combat troops as Democracy Arsenal discusses.

What this strategy implies is a greater use of the predator drone strategy for counter terrorism which has been so controversial in Pakistan. Joe Biden is reported to favour this approach. It's by no means perfect and don't underestimate the popular repulsion at unmanned drones killing civilians with guided missiles. As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported, it may have led to the killing of the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud but a few hundred civilians were killed in the process.

The military commanders may now have struck upon the right strategy. It has only taken them 8 years. But with the Karzai government as it is, it is a strategy built on quicksand. General Eikenberry's caution is more convincing at this point.

As President Obama makes his final decision, he must remember the ghost of Christmas past, President Lyndon B Johnson. He must trust the spirit and intelligence of the ghost of Christmas present, President Barack Obama. And he must fear the ghost of Christmas future, President Barack B Johnson.

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