U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan (photo: startledrabbit_III via Flickr)

U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan (photo: startledrabbit_III via Flickr)

So I’m initiating a weekend feature on the site – I’m trying to shake it up! – taking a look at a single issue from a variety of angles, making connections based on the available reporting from the week. Today I’ll be looking at Afghanistan, and the changing politics around the potential for escalating troop numbers.

A few months ago, Nancy Pelosi said unequivocally that the vote on the supplemental funding for Afghanistan was the hardest vote her caucus had to take all year. The prospect of Democrats owning the war, now among the longest in American history, at a time when the strategy has seemingly become unmoored from its initial foundation, which was to provide security against further Al Qaeda strikes in the West. During the 2008 campaign President Obama vowed to return focus and attention back to Afghanistan, and that manifested itself in an increase of 21,000 forces back in March – although the real number was potentially much higher. Now the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, has asked for an additional commitment of at least 40,000 more troops, even though the military could not send that many over the next three months without a major strain on the Army and Marines.

McChrystal’s call for more troops and more patience despite the war moving into its ninth year is rapidly becoming more than many Democrats can swallow, reflective of public opinion souring on the war effort. A long New York Times magazine piece offers a pretty good condensed version of the stakes:

The magnitude of the choice presented by McChrystal, and now facing President Obama, is difficult to overstate. For what McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.

And that’s if it succeeds.

The article lays out the McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy, with its emphasis on protecting local populations and winning their support. However, the corrupt national government led currently by Hamid Karzai, shown most clearly by the fraudulent elections, frustrates this effort. Top Democrats are now using the elections to argue that no additional troops should be sent to Afghanistan until the situation reaches a resolution. This sentiment was echoed by Carl Levin this week:

Asked about the image and legitimacy of Karzai, Levin said uncertainty over whether the United States will have a solid partner in the Afghanistan leadership is “one of the really great problems that we have to solve.”

He said he was not sure, in the wake of the flawed Afghan presidential election, whether the United States can expect to have an effective ally in Karzai. “It adds huge complexity to any course of action,” Levin said in a breakfast with newspaper reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

…and today, by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry:

With Afghanistan’s election crisis deepening, Sen. John Kerry says it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to consider sending additional troops to the region at this time.

In taped remarks, Kerry said it would be misguided to have a troop buildup to achieve a mission of “good governance” when the election is not yet finished.

If the elections result in a runoff, which even the Afghan ambassador to the US expects, that would probably not be able to happen, due to weather, until the spring, putting the troop question in a holding pattern for months.

Because of the flawed elections and rampant corruption, Gen. McChrystal has acknowledged that even a buildup of as many as 80,000 troops would not prevent chaos, although in the NYT piece, he addressed the Karzai question this way:

When I asked McChrystal about this, it was the one issue that he seemed not to have thought through. What if the Afghan people see their own government as illegitimate? How would you fight for something like that?

“Then we are going to have to avoid looking like we are part of the illegitimacy,” the general said. “That is the key thing.”

It just doesn’t seem possible to disassociate the military occupation from the government they are trying to protect and defend.

Escalation clearly still has backers in Washington, and not just among Republicans, as evidenced by today’s op-ed from Ike Skelton and Joe Lieberman in the Washington Post. But the arguments of those backers are gradually becoming incoherent. They claim that failure in Afghanistan will lead to safe havens for Al Qaeda, when the Taliban already controls large swaths of the country and yet has not welcomed Al Qaeda’s return. They claim that the key to success lies in building up the Afghan security forces, when 90% of them are illiterate and their current presence is mostly illusory, and the kind of funds that would be needed to support them in the desired numbers in the long term far outstrips total Afghan GDP. They maintain that this is a turning point in the war, when A.J. Rossmiller’s smart take obliterates that claim:

There is not a single Afghanistan myth more prevalent or more specious than this one. To be at a “critical juncture” implies that one side or the other is poised to decisively gain the upper hand and therefore to win. But the situation in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of that. I will likely have my pundit card revoked for saying so–nothing diverts attention like saying that a situation isn’t at a critical turning point–but it’s true. After eight years of fighting, two things seem clear: First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate. Only by appropriately characterizing the current situation in Afghanistan can we begin to determine the best way to achieve our stated goals there.

This is the outlook that seems to be gaining support inside the White House, as more and more insiders come around to the pessimistic view of Vice President Joe Biden (here’s a nice precis of the major White House players and their views on Afghanistan). Other Democrats, like Robert Byrd (who made his first appearance on the Senate floor in a month to speak against mission creep in the war effort) and Jane Harman have pulled away from any escalation.

There are actually a variety of policy options in between major escalation or leaving, and that’s likely to be where the Obama Administration will place themselves. They could retreat to the major cities and protect them, or simply try to buy off the Taliban, though so far, efforts at reconciling with them have not proven successful. There could be a heavier reliance on air attacks, though that was a key part of the previous Administration’s failure in Afghanistan, and seemed to only anger local populations. In short, no strategy comes with a perfect model for success.

One final note; the nascent Waziristan offensive in Pakistan, where local forces are fighting extremist elements where they have gathered, seems far closer to the mission of disrupting and dismantling safe havens in the region than any nation-building project. And that’s being undertaken without any US troops at all.

So I’m initiating a weekend feature on the site – I’m trying to shake it up! – taking a look at a single issue from a variety of angles, making connections based on the available reporting from the week. Today I’ll be looking at Afghanistan, and the changing politics around the potential for escalating troop numbers.

A few months ago, Nancy Pelosi said unequivocally that the vote on the supplemental funding for Afghanistan was the hardest vote her caucus had to take all year. The prospect of Democrats owning the war, now among the longest in American history, at a time when the strategy has seemingly become unmoored from its initial foundation, which was to provide security against further Al Qaeda strikes in the West. During the 2008 campaign President Obama vowed to return focus and attention back to Afghanistan, and that manifested itself in an increase of 21,000 forces back in March – although the real number was potentially much higher. Now the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, has asked for an additional commitment of at least 40,000 more troops, even though the military could not send that many over the next three months without a major strain on the Army and Marines.

McChrystal’s call for more troops and more patience despite the war moving into its ninth year is rapidly becoming more than many Democrats can swallow, reflective of public opinion souring on the war effort. A long New York Times magazine piece offers a pretty good condensed version of the stakes:

The magnitude of the choice presented by McChrystal, and now facing President Obama, is difficult to overstate. For what McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.

And that’s if it succeeds.

The article lays out the McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy, with its emphasis on protecting local populations and winning their support. However, the corrupt national government led currently by Hamid Karzai, shown most clearly by the fraudulent elections, frustrates this effort. Top Democrats are now using the elections to argue that no additional troops should be sent to Afghanistan until the situation reaches a resolution. This sentiment was echoed by Carl Levin this week:

Asked about the image and legitimacy of Karzai, Levin said uncertainty over whether the United States will have a solid partner in the Afghanistan leadership is “one of the really great problems that we have to solve.”

He said he was not sure, in the wake of the flawed Afghan presidential election, whether the United States can expect to have an effective ally in Karzai. “It adds huge complexity to any course of action,” Levin said in a breakfast with newspaper reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

…and today, by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry:

With Afghanistan’s election crisis deepening, Sen. John Kerry says it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to consider sending additional troops to the region at this time.

In taped remarks, Kerry said it would be misguided to have a troop buildup to achieve a mission of “good governance” when the election is not yet finished.

If the elections result in a runoff, which even the Afghan ambassador to the US expects, that would probably not be able to happen, due to weather, until the spring, putting the troop question in a holding pattern for months.

Because of the flawed elections and rampant corruption, Gen. McChrystal has acknowledged that even a buildup of as many as 80,000 troops would not prevent chaos, although in the NYT piece, he addressed the Karzai question this way:

When I asked McChrystal about this, it was the one issue that he seemed not to have thought through. What if the Afghan people see their own government as illegitimate? How would you fight for something like that?

“Then we are going to have to avoid looking like we are part of the illegitimacy,” the general said. “That is the key thing.”

It just doesn’t seem possible to disassociate the military occupation from the government they are trying to protect and defend.

Escalation clearly still has backers in Washington, and not just among Republicans, as evidenced by today’s op-ed from Ike Skelton and Joe Lieberman in the Washington Post. But the arguments of those backers are gradually becoming incoherent. They claim that failure in Afghanistan will lead to safe havens for Al Qaeda, when the Taliban already controls large swaths of the country and yet has not welcomed Al Qaeda’s return. They claim that the key to success lies in building up the Afghan security forces, when 90% of them are illiterate and their current presence is mostly illusory, and the kind of funds that would be needed to support them in the desired numbers in the long term far outstrips total Afghan GDP. They maintain that this is a turning point in the war, when A.J. Rossmiller’s smart take obliterates that claim:

There is not a single Afghanistan myth more prevalent or more specious than this one. To be at a “critical juncture” implies that one side or the other is poised to decisively gain the upper hand and therefore to win. But the situation in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of that. I will likely have my pundit card revoked for saying so–nothing diverts attention like saying that a situation isn’t at a critical turning point–but it’s true. After eight years of fighting, two things seem clear: First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate. Only by appropriately characterizing the current situation in Afghanistan can we begin to determine the best way to achieve our stated goals there.

This is the outlook that seems to be gaining support inside the White House, as more and more insiders come around to the pessimistic view of Vice President Joe Biden (here’s a nice precis of the major White House players and their views on Afghanistan). Other Democrats, like Robert Byrd (who made his first appearance on the Senate floor in a month to speak against mission creep in the war effort) and Jane Harman have pulled away from any escalation.

There are actually a variety of policy options in between major escalation or leaving, and that’s likely to be where the Obama Administration will place themselves. They could retreat to the major cities and protect them, or simply try to buy off the Taliban, though so far, efforts at reconciling with them have not proven successful. There could be a heavier reliance on air attacks, though that was a key part of the previous Administration’s failure in Afghanistan, and seemed to only anger local populations. In short, no strategy comes with a perfect model for success.

One final note; the nascent Waziristan offensive in Pakistan, where local forces are fighting extremist elements where they have gathered, seems far closer to the mission of disrupting and dismantling safe havens in the region than any nation-building project. And that’s being undertaken without any US troops at all.

David Dayen

David Dayen