Br. Will is right that scaling down the Afghanistan effort in favor of civilian air strikes, just “air raiding the place” as then Candidate Obama called it, would by itself lead to more civilian casualties.
Will quotes this piece from a NyTimes article on the Biden plan for Afghani-Pakistan (i.e. The Baker-Hamilton of Afpak):
Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.
In short, not only will this leave the population more vulnerable to Taliban incursions, the Administration intends to rely on “surgical” methods that dramatically increase the likelihood of civilian casualties. (italics in original)
But is this all of the Biden plan? Here’s Marc Ambinder:
The deeply flawed election in Afghanistan, which, most importantly, was seen as deeply flawed by the Afghans, seems to have been the breaking point: the central government was not only corrupt, not only weak, and not only barely legitimate outside of Kabul; it was so weak and so corruptible that it would not even be able to sustain the standing army that NATO troops were desperately trying to train. Who was the U.S. fighting for? A weak, inept, ineffectual and ultimately disposable government? Implicit in this argument is that a strategy predicated on there being an alternative to the Taliban is like a hamster spinning on a wheel. In that case, removing the incentives for the Taliban to be radicalized and destroying the leadership of Al Qaeda — basically, bribing people and killing people, and doing so indefinitely, but with irregular and special operations forces — is the alternative. (my emphasis)
Now I think it’s totally ignorant that the Afghan election’s corruption was some shocker to the administration (quelle surprise!!! the horror!!!). I know I say this all the time by why the f@#! do we rate countries’ elections on the 21st century Western version of a “transparent, corruption-free election” when they are living in the 17th century? The arrogance of this is so far beyond belief, it burns my goats (as it were). Look into the history of American presidential elections and ask how “free and fair” say the election of 1816 was?
Anyway, off my rant. I suppose Team Obama needs the political cover and the inevitable corruption of the Afghan election (which I can’t imagine being solved by re-running it) gives it.
The killing part is the special forces and the air strikes which Will has mentioned, but what about this bribing part?
Here’s John Robb:
One salient theme of global guerrilla theory is that nation-states, from western democracies to developing countries, are finding it nearly impossible to retain legitimacy in a globalized environment. One of the drivers is that good governance of the type we aspired to in the late 20th Century (that delivers a rising tide and a level playing field), isn’t possible without a modicum of control over borders, currency, people, media, etc. (all of which which was lost with globalization — from communications to trade flows). Worse, predators (fueled and superempowered by connections to the globalized system), from global banksters/hedgies to gangs to militias, abound, ready to siphon off, wreck, or corrupt any gains or attempts that are made to deliver good governance. As a result of this theme, fragmentation (either physical or virtual) is inevitable.
Whatever can be said for the whole, it’s even worse at the bottom of the pile, in places like Afghanistan…the only means of reigning in feedback loops of death/destruction is to support decentralized sources of order and legitimacy.
Here is John (testifying to the House) on what he calls open-source counterinsurgency:
Aghanistan is a hollow state — it has international recognition (and the trappings of a nation-state including five star hotels in the capital for journalists and diplomats), but it retains little control over the countryside. Further, the state lacks legitimacy. All legitimacy is local/tribal/gang. So, let’s skip to the end game in Afghanistan and run this war through “nominally loyalist” tribal militias (loyal to US money and support rather than to the Afghan government). Let’s not waste time on building up the Afghan military, trying to make the Afghan government legitimate, or on reconstruction efforts.
This wasn’t a strategy for “victory” (in the sense of the maximal goals required: a legitimate democracy that is integrated into the global economy), it was a strategy of “good enough” (a defensive delay). The strategy above allows the US to maintain a level of controlled chaos in Afghanistan, enough to allow an exit. It doesn’t waste the lives of US soldiers and our increasingly scarce financial resources on a maximal effort that can’t be won. It’s also a strategy that comes straight out of Brave New War (the strategy, re: Sons of Iraq, that was eventually used in Iraq to create controlled chaos sufficient for an exit, is too).
In Iraq, what happened was not the success of the surge contra the neocon right. What happened was the insurgency was bought off because it had failed strategically and tactically both in a military and political sense–this became apparent as Baghdad had been ethnically cleansed of Sunnis. i.e. The Sunnis lost the Iraqi Civil War. They were therefore “buy-able”, at the price of the heads of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Now Iraq has a history of strongman leadership as well as strong state apparatus. What occurred politically was trading one strongman (Sunni) for another (Shia, Maliki). The history of Iraq is playing itself back out as the Arab strongman is heading towards potential war with the Kurds in the north.
Afghanistan does not have this recent history of strong state leadership. The Taliban were in charge but actually didn’t govern much, instead focusing insanely on public/private conformity to their religious (dys)utopian ideal. Of course The Afghan Taliban have much stronger ties with Al-Qaeda are not likely to sell them up the river. In the Iraqi cases, the al-Qaedites were largely non-Iraqi, foreign intruders and were easy targets. Most of AQ now appears to be in Pakistan anyway.
But Afghanistan is not Iraq. A “surge” in Afghanistan will do probably as little, maybe even less than a surge in Iraq did. The various factions called Taliban will simply melt back into the crowd and wait NATO out. The “surge” in Iraq was not the success. It was the buying off (“the bribing”) of the insurgency.
And that is where Robb’s idea comes in. Afghanistan will not even get to the level of a Maliki-lead (tenuously but sufficient at this point) Iraq. Not in a decade. And to replicate the real counterinsurgency success of Iraq requires not more troops and nation-state building but rather buying off the insurgents. To that would inevitably even more so than is already the case to a fragmented Afghanistan.
The alternative requires not just a (mythic?) deal with the Taliban to enter the government but also (an equally if not more so mythic) regional deal between India, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Good luck with that one.
Open source counterinsurgency could work as a third option between the Chechen school of counterinsurgency--which in the Afghanistan case would include massive attacks on the narcotics industry–and the population-centric COIN school that Gen. McChrystal is pushing for (plus “surge” just like in Iraq).