Sunday, March 15, 2009

A "Surge" in Afghanistan?

Ben Katcher of The Washington Note comments on a recent pair of articles on Afghanistan in The New York Times arguing for and against an escalated military campaign.

Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, argue for a "surge" of the Taliban in which President Obama's recent announcement of an additional 17,000 troops is "a good start." As usual, these neoconservative writers cast the issue in terms of "winning" and "losing" and stress the unacceptable risks of "losing."

Katcher points out that the authors fail to justify this strategy in terms of a larger strategic purpose. They also make no mention of its economic costs in a time of historic economic crisis. He notes that it is unclear why or how a prolonged military occupation would create a more functional Afghan state. Lastly, these authors again assume that the "surge" in Iraq, upon which their recommendation for Afghanistan is modelled, was an unqualified success. Political reconciliation of Iraq's sectarian factions, the announced objective of the "surge," has still not occurred.

Leslie Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations, recommends "we withdraw our troops over a period of three years while providing military and economic assistance to fight terrorism."

I don't know whether the power extrication strategy sketched out here would be less or more risky than our present course. But trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is unattainable, while finding a way to live with, contain and deter the Taliban is an achievable goal. After all, we don't insist on eliminating terrorist threats from Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Furthermore, this strategy of containing and deterring is far better suited to American power than the current approach of counterinsurgency and nation-building.

The main lesson from our adventure in Iraq involves the limits of American military power as the primary tool for achieving our foreign policy objectives. While the article by Boot and the Kagans discusses the need for non-military nation-building in Afghanistan, they still seem oblivious to this lesson. Gelb and others, including Andrew Bacevich in his new book The Limits of Power, argue convincingly that such foreign military adventures are wasteful and hubristic folly.

--Ballard Burgher

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