I don’t have a well thought out view of Afghanistan. But General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan never made much sense to me. The plan by definition requires a government which the people can trust. But all reports are that Hamid Karzai is not trusted by the people in Afghanistan. The election last year was a total fiasco. That kind of seems like a big gaping hole in the middle of the counter-insurgency plan. You can’t build trust in a government whose leader stays in power by fraud. McChrystal was reportedly trying to build trust in Karzai by travelling with him and boosting his position, but since frankly I can’t see why the Afghan people would trust McChrystal or the U.S. either, that seems like a flawed plan.

So now McChrystal is out amid reports of bickering and infighting. But we’re still going to follow the same plan under General Petraeus. The basic dynamic of the situation is unchanged. How is this not going to be a disaster?

The U.S. made progress in Iraq, against my expectations, by showing that people had more to gain by participating in politics than they did by staying out. In particular, the Iraqis showed themselves what a civil war would look like, and many of them backed away. Iraq remains a long way from normal, and the former middle class remains largely outside the country, but it’s hugely better than it was four years ago.

Afghanistan is a much bigger country than Iraq with a much smaller population. The political dynamics are by necessity quite different. The political class is much smaller. I don’t see why one would expect the same process to work.

It’s also worth questioning what the U.S. has to gain from Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has relocated into Pakistan. No reasonable person would want to let the Taliban regain control, but there is no U.S. national interest in Afghanistan. There is no oil. The recently trumpeted minerals wealth has little national interest to the U.S., no slouch in mineral wealth itself. What is going to keep us there for the time it takes to turn Afghanistan into a modern society?

At this point I think the military approach is entirely wrong. I think an economic approach would be much more effective. Maybe we should try to make Kabul as secure as we can and as rich as we can, and open its gates to anybody who will enter without weapons. Hand out radios and food. Let the Taliban fight for the rest of the country, but show most of the people that a better way is available. I don’t know if this would work at all, but it would be cheaper in lives and money than the current approach.

Since we’re not going to do that, I just hope that I’m wrong again, and that something useful comes out of this, even if I can’t see what.


  1. maxlybbert said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    The way I understand it, the US’s national interest in Afghanistan is twofold: first, to prevent Afghanistan from turning back into a failed terrorist state (which you acknowledge with the statement “no reasonable person would want to let the Taliban regain control”) and, second, to show other countries that the US will stick to a task if sufficiently provoked. You can argue with logic behind either of those interests, and you can argue about whether they are attainable. But that’s my understanding of why the US continues to send troops, equipment and money.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I entirely agree that the Taliban taking control would be equivalent to Afghanistan turning into a terrorist state. The Taliban never attacked anybody outside of Afghanistan. It does seem at least possible that they have learned their lesson about hosting groups which do attack people. In any case that doesn’t seem like a strong argument for the massive occupation we are engaging in today. Somalia is in a similar position—a failed state which has hosted terrorists—but we have not invaded. We are actively involved in Somalia, and apparently making some forward progress, but not at the cost of 100,000 soldiers.

    The argument that we should stick to a task is pretty much why the U.S. stayed in Vietnam for so long, but it still didn’t lead to a good result in the end. That is, the result looks fine today, but at the time it was a clear loss for the U.S., and Vietnam would look the way it does today if the U.S. had left years earlier.

  3. admiyo said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 6:39 am

    The US Army Counterinsurgency (COIN) Manual was written by GEN Petraeus. It is available on line, and it is a pretty good read. COIN *is* an ecomonic approach. The alternatives to COIN are either gear up for full scale war or get out. Niether is appropriate for Afghanistan.

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    I think there are possibilities between 100,000 soldiers and 0.

    And as many people have noted, COIN requires a legitimate government, and it’s not clear that Afghanistan has that today.

  5. admiyo said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Been thinking about this since you responded.

    COIN is an alternative approach to full scale war that attempts merge the polical, military and economic process into a coherent whole.

    Ceasar was known for his largess. His goal was to get his enemies to capiltulate, instead of having to spend troops and blood to get his goal.

    In Afghanistan, we are attempting to build a state, no doubt about it. The reality on the ground is difficult, and that makes some people throw up their hands. Perhaps it is not worth the opportunity costs to try and get to Afghanistan Good Enough. At this point, it seems like it is worth it.

    Read GEN Petraeus’ open remarks: you can find them on the small wars journal website and elsewhere. Afghanistan is better than it was in 2001, and a big part of that is because we are there. We need to be seen not as an occupyiun power, but as a cast on a broken limb. We are attempting to limit the damage we do in fighting the insurgency. We are attmpeting to shore up the Afghan Army and National POlice, long term projects for sure, but attainable goals.

    We are also looking at the reality on the ground. Afghanistan is tribal. We have to work with the tribal leaders, and make a connection betweeen them and the Governement in Kabul.

    None of this is impossible. Yes, there are die hard Taliban fighters that will never give in. We ahve to assume, though, that most Afghanis are tribal, they are looking for menas to live, and will give up the rifle for a better economic future. We have the tools on hand to help Afghanistan get there. Some of that is keeping the roads open, some of that is doing bad things to bad people.

    RIght now we have 100K SOldiers over there. We wont have this level of troop deployments for a long time, but we will be in Afghanistan for a long time. We made a commitment to these people when we sided with the Northern Alliance. We made a commitment to our own people when we went after the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks. This is as true today as it was in 2002. The fact that we got distracted with the Iraq war doesn’t change that.

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    We are fighting the insurgency, but at the same time President Karzai is reportedly negotiating to bring part of the Taliban into the government. That is absolutely the right thing for him to do in his position, but what are we doing there if we aren’t fighting the Taliban? It looks to me as if we’re fighting to keep a corrupt leader in power, a side we’ve taken many times in the past in many other countries which has rarely worked out well in the long run.

    I agree that we have to be seen not as an occupying power, but the reality is that we are currently an occupying power, and many Afghans undoubtedly see us exactly that way because that is what we are.

    Everything you write makes sense to me, but I’m having a hard time bringing it into accord with the bigger picture as it appears to me.

  7. admiyo said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    The Taliban should and will be part of the Afghanistan government in the future. This is not really much different than the discussion about the Ba’athists in Iraq.

    The Taliban were able to seize and hold power due to their power base being the Pashtun majority in southern Afghanistan. If we can convince them as a group to join the existing government, and to lay down their arms, the country will be in a much more stable place.

    What we don’t want to happen is for the Taliban based government to return, an to enforce strict Wahabi style governance based on a fundamentalist approach to Islam.

    Just like we had to allow the South to send people to Congress after the Civil War. We probably don’t want Mullah Omar in the Afghani government. But there will be a Taliban presence. It should just be balnace off against the other groups in Afghanistan, unlike pre 2002.

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