The Afghanistan Train Wreck

December 28th, 2009

By Tom Carter

AfPakMapThe classic metaphor is watching two trains chug along toward each other in slow motion, knowing that they will collide head-on but being unable to do anything about it. 

That’s what the Administration’s Afghanistan policy looks like.  The President made his speech at West Point, declaring that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  That will bring the total up to about 100,000 U.S. troops in-country. 

At the same time, he said that they would begin withdrawing in July 2011, barely a year after the last of them arrive.  However, he added later in the speech, “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.”

And there’s the rub.  No sooner had the speech been made than senior Administration officials — like the Secretary of Defense, the President’s National Security Advisor, and the Commander of U.S. Central Command — were saying publicly that the President’s withdrawal date isn’t real.  We could be there in significant strength for years after that date.

General Stanley McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan, wants to expand Afghan army and police security forces to a total of 400,000.  That was his original plan, and he’s apparently sticking to it, even though President Obama told him that goal was too high.  He won’t have the troops and the time to do it, but if he doesn’t do it the chances are the Kabul government won’t survive and the Taliban insurgency won’t be contained after U.S. and NATO forces depart.

What vital U.S. interests are involved and how will they be furthered by additional expenditures of blood and treasure in Afghanistan?  Hard to say, really.  Propping up a corrupt regime in a backward country isn’t a vital American interest.  If that were to mean that al-Qaeda could no longer plan or inspire attacks against us because they couldn’t operate from Afghanistan, that would be fine.  But it doesn’t mean that.  They’ll just go somewhere else; in fact, they’ve already decamped to Pakistan.

Stability in the region, particularly in nuclear-armed Pakistan, is a valid U.S. interest.  However, it isn’t clear that defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, assuming we can do it, will further stability in Pakistan.  In fact, having driven al-Qaeda across the border into Pakistan has served only to further de-stabilize that chaotic country, and continued involvement in Afghanistan could make matters worse.     

The more we know, the more we should be seriously concerned about the President’s strategy for Afghanistan.  At best, we’ll muddle through for a few more years, then pull out long before the job is finished, assuming it can ever be finished.  At worst, we’ll suffer many more casualties and spend many billions more to achieve nothing more than we could have had by pulling out now.    

Stephen Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following statement in congressional testimony:

Public support for the war in Afghanistan has been falling for much of the last year. The manifest corruption of Afghan elections last summer aggravated this decline, but it was ongoing well beforehand and stems from deeper causes. Americans have increasingly been asking fundamental questions about the war: do we have important interests at stake? Can we secure them? Will the cost of securing them be tolerable? …

This war is neither the obvious necessity that its strongest supporters claim, nor the clear loser that its opponents typically see. The war engages important, but indirect, U.S. interests. It will be expensive to wage properly, could require many years to resolve, and might ultimately fail even if waged vigorously, but failure is not guaranteed and the U.S. enjoys advantages that other outsiders in Afghanistan have not. “Middle way” options designed to secure our interests but cut our costs, moreover, have important shortcomings and are unlikely to offer an escape from these dilemmas. …

…the balance of cost and risk suggests a war that is worth waging, but only barely – yet one worth waging vigorously if we are to do so at all. What is clearest, however, is that neither the case for the war nor the case against it is beyond challenge or without important counterarguments.

Biddle’s statement is worth reading in full because it lays out clearly the challenges we face in Afghanistan and some of the options available.

As I noted in an earlier article, it’s instructive to apply the principles of the Powell Doctrine to our strategy for Afghanistan.  It falls short on all points.

Recommended reading:

Assessing U.S. Options for Afghanistan, Stephen Biddle, CFR
U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead, Colin L. Powell, Foreign Affairs, Winter 92/93
President Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan (transcript), ABC News 
Obama aides fine-tune meaning of Afghan withdrawal date, CNN
Work to be done, Editorial, The Washington Post
A sharp turn toward another Vietnam, George McGovern, The Washington Post
Assessing The Threat In Afghanistan, Peter Bergen, NPR
Interview with Colin Powell, The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC
The Powell Doctrine, Doug DuBrin, PBS
Powell Doctrine, Wikipedia
The World Factbook: Afghanistan, CIA
The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam

(This article was also published at Blogcritics.)

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7 Responses to “The Afghanistan Train Wreck”

  1. Harvey |

    Tom great article!

    Here’s a related thought:

    There have been a spate of articles printed in various newspapers that suggest the reason for much (not all by any means) Middle Eastern terrorism. Two of these articles are:

    Bernama, the Malaysian National News Agency, reports that: “Arab Countries Must Create 51 Million Jobs To Maintain Current Unemployment Rate” and in another article: “40 Percent Of Arabs Live Below Poverty Line”.

    Reuters reports that the “UNDP” (United Nations Development Programme) has called on wealthy Arab states to help their poorer Arab neighbors to create jobs and boost food security.

    The bottom line is: poverty is a large part of the problem.

    How does this fit into terrorism? Unemployed Arab youth who live in poor environments (just like unemployed American youth who live in poor areas) tend to join gangs; but in the case of the Arab youth those “gangs” are terrorist organizations. If there was some way to create gainful employment in poor Arab countries there would, most likely, be fewer terrorists.

  2. Brian Bagent |

    UNDP can call on “wealthy” Arab states to help their neighbors all they want. Until those people develop western values regarding property and political philosophy, wealth will always elude them, and there will never be a healthy middle class.

    In a macroeconomic sense, wealth cannot simply be given away, for the recipient of that wealth will just squander it. I don’t mean that in an ugly way, but that unless and until the recipients understand the nature of wealth, they won’t be able to put it to productive use to continue the cycle of wealth in the same way they have continued the cycle of poverty.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    I’d also add that those Arab states are perfectly within their right to continue doing things the way they have always done them. But, if you complain of a headache after continuously knocking yourself in the head with a tack hammer, I will be disinclined to provide you with another tack hammer when the current one breaks.

  4. Harvey |


    True! True! All true!

  5. Dave |

    We want to blame someone for some nut getting on a plane to blow it up and yet an armed military camp cannot protect their people from a suicide bomber. You can’t be serious

  6. Tom |

    Harvey, I suppose it’s possible that poverty and joblessness contribute to terrorism, at least in theory. But what we’ve seen in practice indicates otherwise.

    The numbskull who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit the other day was the son of a very wealthy Nigerian, and he received an elite education in London (along with indoctrination in jihad). Nidal Hasan was a psychiatrist, a field-grade Army officer and a person of status and prestige; he learned his radical Islam in his home country — the U.S. Osama bin Ladin is one of the sons of a fabulously wealthy Saudi family. The 9/11 hijackers were middle- to upper-class. That pattern is evident throughout the history of islamist terrorism.

    The fact is, the problem is radical Muslims and those who support them, including the millions of average Muslims who cheer their murderous activities. The prime indicators of potential terrorists are younger men, mostly Arab, who become radicalized. Conducting body searches of blue-haired grannies in Omaha at the same rate we scrutinize Arab Muslim men may be politically correct, but it’s stupid and dangerous.

  7. Brianna |

    “…and yet an armed military camp cannot protect their people from a suicide bomber.”

    I suspect that an armed military camp could do so just fine, as that police sergeant demonstrated when she took down the shooter herself. However, the soldiers on the Fort Hood base did not go about armed. Perhaps if they did, the shooter would have been taken down faster and even more lives would have been saved. Check your facts next time before you post.

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