Monday, August 04, 2008

The value of American troops in Afghanistan

Kevin Drum refers to two excellent discussions (How to Save Afghanistan by Rory Stewart and Behind the Indian Embassy Bombing by Robert Kaplan.) on how to deal with the problems in Afghanistan. The two discussions reach the same conclusion, which Kevin summarizes as
Afghanistan is not primarily a military problem. We can't and shouldn't abandon Afghanistan as we did in the early 90s, but our presence should be targeted, tightly constrained, and mostly economic and diplomatic. There's a place for counterinsurgency there, but not for tens of thousands more troops trying vainly to control hundreds of thousands of square miles of unfriendly territory.
Afghanistan is one location causing problem in a Middle East that is roiled with the problems of the continued conflict between (the nuclear armed) Pakistan and India, compounded by the aggressiveness of Iran, all of with has been made worse by the misguided American invasion and the subsequent collapse of the state of Iraq. It doesn't help that Pakistan itself is close to being a failed state with large areas inside its borders where the government does not control what happens.

The ISI of Pakistan - in many ways an uncontrolled state-within-the-state of Pakistan - is fixated on its war with India and sees Afghanistan as a theater of that war. So they are actively encouraging the Taliban (again) to hide out in the Pakistani borderlands and attack both Karsai government and the NATO troops in Afghanistan. None of this has been helped by the efforts of the Karsai government to develop closer relations with the government and military of India, but with the ISI of Pakistan actively trying to remove the karsai government, that is one of Karsai's best options. In the absence of a strong central government of Pakistan that could reign in the ISI and the fact that the U.S. has no remaining troops to send and no capability to conduct effective diplomatic assistance, Karsai has little alternative. (It would be interesting to know if funds from Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia were funding the ISI in its efforts to support the Taliban push to reconquer Afghanistan as they were two decades ago.)

The discussion above should not be construed to say that the ISI is the source of all the problems in Afghanistan. A brief timeline of ISI operations connected to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, the Soviet Union and others clearly shows that Pakistan faces numerous threats to its existence. That list shows an indication of just how unstable the entire Middle East - South Asia area is and has been since at least WW II. (By the way, a major reason given for the American invasion of Iraq was to create a free market democracy that would be a model for the rest of the region to try to calm the turmoil. Such an ignorant, naive and simplistic effort never had a chance, of course. It merely added to the problems by removing the relatively stable government of Iraq and giving the Shiite portions of Iraq over to Iran.)

So what are more American troops to do in Afghanistan? Without putting American troops along the Afghanistan border almost shoulder to shoulder and more troops on every crossroads and intersection within Afghanistan, there really is very little that conventional troops can do in Afghanistan.

All of which is completely irrelevant to American policy in a Presidential election year when American voters are afraid and are looking for a Presidential strong-man who will protect America from the radical terrorists being created by all that Islamic/Hindu conflict. Especially since the conflict is more about population pressures, modernization and the western exploitation of oil producing nations for their oil wealth, combined with the absence of strong nation states in the region. Religion is more of a reaction to the other problems than it is the cause of them.

Even if more troops were the solution, the U.S. is totally tied down now in Iraq. There is only one place to get more American troops, so Obama is promising to break loose three brigades and send them to Afghanistan. McCain is making similar tough-man noises. What those troops would do once they reached the superb guerrilla territory of Afghanistan is not mentioned from either camp. Exactly like the occupation of the conquered Iraq has been since weeks after the initial invasion, Afghanistan is becoming a theater of shadow puppets designed to distract the American voters and make the Presidential candidates each look tougher. What is happening in Afghanistan is unimportant except for how it causes American voters to vote to choose the next President. The result is that the media presents nothing but shadows and uninformed images manipulated by American political actors and designed to influence votes instead of policies.

Want to look tough on terrorism? Promise to send more troops to Afghanistan. Until recently it was a cheap promise, although the apparent shifting of Islamic fighters from Iraq appears to have caused an increase in America casualties in Afghanistan as experience guerrillas have redeployed their experience with IEDs from Iraq to Afghanistan.

How much better argument against a country-by-country strategy of deploying military do you want? It's whack-a-mole, and the military by itself is a poor mole-whacking hammer as the Soviets proved on the same battle ground in the 80's. And they had a lot more troops to send than we do.

We can't just leave Afghanistan as Bush 41 did two decades ago, but the problems there will not be solved by sending more troops and blowing more stuff up; And it damned sure won't be solved by frightened voters casting a vote for the presidential candidate who talks toughest. Kaplan makes a very important point when he says "we are in danger of conceiving of war in narrow military terms alone, and thus getting the politics wrong." Kevin is right. "...our presence should be targeted, tightly constrained, and mostly economic and diplomatic."

Kevin's approach has the advantage of being something that might work, unlike sending more (but never enough) troops. It also has a second major advantage - it's an approach America might be able to afford considering the hollowed out under-trained and poorly equipped Army and Marine Corps Bush and Cheney have left for us to use.

None of this matters until after November 4th, unless Cheney is allowed to do something utterly stupid between now and January 20th. American policy toward Afghanistan and the Middle East in general is not going to move forward while Bush remains President, and we aren't even going to hear much that makes sense during the Presidential campaigns. That doesn't mean things aren't going to get worse in the Middle East or that the U.S. government won't do something utterly stupid (again.) It just means that there is no room for even discussion of a rational policy until January 20th - and not afterwards if McCain steals wins Bush's third term.

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