Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch Revisited

You can read my more-direct analysis of the Washington Post‘s excellent behind-the-scenes-of-the-Obama-administration’s-Afghanistan-Pakistan-strategy-debate over here at the Washington Independent. For Attackerman-related purposes, I want to gaze at my navel. Well, mine and Michael Cohen’s.

When the dude started his Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch series at Democracy Arsenal, he and I engaged in an extended back and forth, both on our blogs, in emails, on listservs and, on one spirited occasion, D.C.’s wonderful Full Kee restaurant in Chinatown. Michael and I saw the issue from different perspectives. To Michael, counterinsurgency clearly required more resources than the nation was prepared to devote; a civilian component unlikely to materialize; Afghan governance that was extremely unlikely to materialize; and in any event, the whole thing was orthogonal to the actually-existing issue of counterterrorism that was the Obama administration’s stated purpose.

To me, I (in all honesty) breezed by the first point because I wasn’t convinced; share the second and third concern; and disagreed with the fourth. Well, I disagreed in two ways — both substantively and descriptively. The descriptive version is where the two of us actually got into our bigger disputes. I took issue with Michael’s entire "mission creep" framing because my read of the administration’s white paper influenced the way I understood Obama’s speech. Since the administration was talking explicitly about a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism goal it seemed to me a misunderstanding to characterize the implementation of that approach as "mission creep."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Washington Post piece demonstrates that Michael has the better of our descriptive argument. If the Obama administration doesn’t have faith in its white paper, and then is saying to Rajiv that McChrystal "extrapolated" from the white paper to population-centric counterinsurgency, then it really does make sense to discuss mission creep, and Michael is right. All I can say is that the administration officials I have been speaking to for months really did believe that the white paper was the strategy; the white paper represented a good grasp of Afghanistan and Pakistan realities; and offered the foundations of strategy that were a more plausible path to success than any alternative. All that is now up for debate at the White House. So, to Michael Cohen: you were right about that, and I was wrong. I believe I was wrong because I was too caught up in the narrative that was presented for me, and I will endeavor to correct that mistake.

Still, Yankees over the Red Sox in the ALCS in six.

Update: Some administration officials, under cover of anonymity, seem to want to take this too far

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman