The Question of the Hour

 

Can we win in Afghanistan?  I’m not asking whether Petraeus will be able to take over from McChrystal without disrupting our operations on the ground or whether the Obama administration will give Petraeus the troops and the time he needs.  Even if the transition from McChrystal to Petraeus goes flawlessly and the administration, by some miracle, decides to pursue an unambiguous victory, can we win?

As he insisted on our podcast last week, Victor Davis Hanson believes we can.  Yet as he told me on a recent episode of Uncommon Knowledge, and as he argues again in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Fouad Ajami believes we cannot.

[C]ounterinsurgency [Ajami writes in the Wall Street Journal] requires a native regime that would hold its own against insurgents and defend its own homeland.  No serious assessment holds out the promise of a capable Afghan regime and a devoted national army that would fight for the incumbent government.  Afghanistan is what it is, a land riven by corruption and sectarianism, a population weighed down by illiteracy and hardened by years of betrayal and abdication.  The “Afghanization” of the war is a utopian idea.

Victor and Fouad represent two of the most important–that is, two of the most articulate, determined, and knowledgeable–supporters of the war in Iraq.  They’re friends.  They’re patriots.  They possess a deep understanding of the history and mores of the Middle East and Central Asia.  As the debate on Afghanistan unfolds, we’ll learn virtually everything we need to know to make up our own minds by watching these two men disagree. 

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @ScottR
    Conor Friedersdorf: What is so special about training in Afghanistan? · Jun 28 at 9:46pm

    Just the message that failure would send, I guess: that three thousand citizens of the world’s super-power could be killed in an attack planned from that country, and we lack the resolve or ability to eliminate the safe-haven. That’s no small thing, a hugely invigorating message to send to the enemy worldwide (though I completely and totally see your point, which is why this is such a tough nut).

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    Michael Totten once remarked of Iraq that the nation was materially rich, but philosophically poor. The comment was part of his exegesis about why the rebuilding process was going so slowly. What then of Afghanistan? What hope for a culture that is both materially impoverished and philosophically weak?

    The president of Afghanistan should properly be called the warlord of Kabul. That’s an overstatement. The national army is even less motivated than the various tribal militias. The Pashtuns at least are united by tribal identity and their particular interpretation of Islam. And the Pashtuns are the Taliban.

    It’s time to make a deal. If the Taliban are willing to deny al Qaeda sanctuary, then we leave them alone. As Conor remarked above, why is Afghanistan any more important than Somolia or Yemen? I understand that such a deal will result in the return of sharia, but that’s not America’s concern.

    VDH has stated that Afghanistan has enjoyed peaceful times in the past. That’s only true in a limited sense. The relative peace never fully quashed the ongoing blood feuds that characterize this culture. Old habits die hard.

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @JimChase

    Time perhaps has muddled my memory, but as I recall the events surrounding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the objectives were the overthrow of the Taliban, destruction of terrorist camps and infrastructure, and the disposition of al Qaeda – in particular Osama bin Laden. I don’t believe the idea of nation-building came into the conversation until after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I understand the debate about the so-called moral obligations of the victor, and the ideal of democratization. But I believe it was a mistake to allow the nation-building concept to enter the strategy for the Afghan war.

    Yet here we are. The Soviets couldn’t tame this place, and the Taliban eventually filled the vacuum. Afghanistan seems to be in the mold of Somalia – largely lawless, divided by tribe, ruled by warlords. Only an occupation lasting generations, with a focus on integration and nationalism, can Afghanistan ever approach the characteristics of a nation-state. Yet such would likely beget a series of tyrannies and dictators.

    I’d like to believe in victory, to the extent that we can neutralize the threat to our national security. But I have doubts.

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  4. Profile Photo Member
    @ScottR

    Just goes to show how the job of POTUS would weigh on the mind. Imagine having to make that call. Yes, “we’ll learn virtually everything we need to know to make up our own minds by watching these two men disagree,” but I bet I, for one, will still be unable to.

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  5. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson

    Wow, but I learned a lot from reading those comments. Two questions in particular stand out:

    1. What’s victory? How should we define it?

    2. Does Afghanistan matter nearly as much as Pakistan? Which has nukes and a population of more than 100 million?

    Next question: Why are we having to ask these questions? Shouldn’t the President, or Petraeus, or somebody have explained all this in plain language already? The next time I see Victor, I’m going to pop this stuff on him.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MelFoil

    War is a type of drug too. In societies that have been fighting for decades, there needs to be a gradual withdrawal process–guerrilla rehab. Even done efficiently, it would probably take a dozen years for them to achieve any acceptable level of “sobriety.” Anything in Afghanistan that has a shorter deadline than about ten years should probably be considered a joke.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Podcaster
    @DaveCarter

    Peter, I listened closely to VDH on the podcast, and if memory serves correctly, he did stress that Afghanistan would not likely blossom into a westernized democracy.  The key question, to me at least, is how do we therefore define an “unambiguous victory?”  If it is the installation of a government on the order of what we have in the US,  then I think VDH and Fouad Ajami would likely deem it utopian.  A government like, say, Chicago, might be more realistic.

    If on the other hand, victory is defined as rendering Afghanistan inhospitable as a staging base from which to train and launch terrorist attacks on the US and whatever we allies we have left, I wonder if these gentlemen might agree on the odds of success?   Would such a victory require US forces in the region much as our presence on the Korean peninsula, or would such a presence be an admission of failure?

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    Peter, my understanding of Pakistan is that it’s not properly a nation-state either. The border areas in the east and north are autonomous tribal regions. The government has some influence in these areas, but little control.

    As to the population of 100 million, most are subsistence farmers. Abundant water and alluvial soil will do that for you. We’re talking about village life where nothing changes from one generation to the next regardless of what political party is in power. Pakistan’s elite class is British educated and trained. Benazir Bhutto was an Oxford graduate (or perhaps Cambridge). The elite political class operates like an oligarchy, and has very little in common with the populace.

    I’ve been told (through admittedly third-hand sources) that the US has contingency plans to evacuate the warheads should it become necessary. India has plans to neutralize the nuclear delivery systems and/or seize the warheads should the situation become sufficiently critical. The only way I can see a warhead falling into terrorist hands is through some sort of skulduggery. The nuclear arsenal is not going to be handed over to religious zealots in a coup.

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  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    Ooops. That should read “west and north.”

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  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DevinCole

    Peter,

    I think your original question is important, but even more important is your sub-question 1. What is victory? We seem to have some consensus that we have achieved some approximation of victory in Iraq. Certainly, we have reduced the insurgency dramatically, we have seen multiple democratic elections, and we have removed an evil regime from power. Personally, I count this as victory, but will we see decades of stable democracy in Iraq? Have we converted the thinking, the social fabric, of Iraqis to a level to overcome their history, 2500 years of on an off “autocratic, authoritarian government”? (to borrow a phrase from Ricochet contributor Victor Davis Hanson)

    So, for now we claim victory in Iraq. Afghanistan? What about the other terrorist hotbeds mentioned in comments previous, like Yemen and Somalia? I think the biggest question is: Are we developing our national defense in such a way to deter and respond effectively to the threats against our civilization? We are not hated for what we do in the world but for what we represent as a way of life. Do we let our enemies think they can win or not?

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  11. Profile Photo Member
    @

    The more I think and read about this subject, the more I think that Pakistan is what matters. It’s a nuclear armed power. We don’t want its government, and thus its nukes, to be controlled by un-deterable, radical Islamists, nor do we want hardliners to seize control and make war with India. Does our presence in Afghanistan stabilize or destabilize Pakistan? To me that is the big question, and as yet I don’t have an answer, or even an opinion.

    But I do think the question of whether terrorists have a training base and launch pad is beside the point, because aren’t there plenty of places in parts of Afghanistan we don’t control, and in tribal Pakistan, and in Somalia, and in Yemen, and in a dozen other places we don’t control, where they have a place to train? What is so special about training in Afghanistan?

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Scott Reusser

    Conor Friedersdorf: What is so special about training in Afghanistan? · Jun 28 at 9:46pm

    Just the message that failure would send, I guess: that three thousand citizens of the world’s super-power could be killed in an attack planned from that country, and we lack the resolve or ability to eliminate the safe-haven. That’s no small thing, a hugely invigorating message to send to the enemy worldwide (though I completely and totally see your point, which is why this is such a tough nut). · Jun 29 at 5:17am

    I fear that message has already been sent: Osama bin Laden, after all, is still alive. We needed him to be dead–immediately.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @SteveMacDonald

    As Dave says above, it depends on how you define victory. Victor has also written before about the possible time when the USA, not willing to risk its young soldiers further, simply bombs sufficiently to destroy any will or ability to resist.

    The potential success of a counter insurgency is questionable – we don’t even have the right team in place, let alone the Afghans. I also do not believe that the administration and populace have the patience/stomach for a prolonged bloody conflict.

    We could choose to just devastate and walk away. It would be terribly un-PC but it would provide a kind of victory.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DevinCole
    Claire Berlinski

    I fear that message has already been sent: Osama bin Laden, after all, is still alive. We needed him to be dead–immediately. · Jun 29 at 9:54am

    Claire has a good point here. We were rather successful in 2001 at removing the Taliban regime which harbored Al Qaeda. From what I see, we were not that great at destroying Al Qaeda, and we certainly failed to cut the head off the snake. How different would our experience have been in Iraq if we had demonstrated greater capabilities in eliminating Osama Bin Laden quickly?

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @JimChase

    Hypothetically speaking, what if the powers that be offered the following deal to the Taliban: Turn over bin Laden to U.S. custody, and the U.S. and its allies will agree to a cease fire and eventual reduction in forces.

    Would that count as “victory”? (I daresay some would think so). Would the Taliban seriously consider such a deal, or has the fact that this administration tipped its hand on withdrawal in 2011 negated any such opportunity? Would such a deal stabilize or destabilize Pakistan?

    I would never advocate such a deal, mind you, as I think it to be short-sighted to the possibility of a long-term threat to national security. But I wonder if something similar has crossed the mind of some diplomat or strategist somewhere.

    • #15

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