Agnosia Afghanistania

From Washington Post piece on the continued discussion around the McChyrstal’s strategic troop increase request:

But White House officials are resisting McChrystal’s call for urgency, which he underscored Thursday during a speech in London, and questioning important elements of his assessment, which calls for a vast expansion of an increasingly unpopular war. One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting, said, “A lot of assumptions — and I don’t want to say myths, but a lot of assumptions — were exposed to the light of day.”

Among them, according to three senior administration officials who attended the meeting, is McChrystal’s contention that the Taliban and al-Qaeda share the same strategic interests and that the return to power of the Taliban would automatically mean a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

The use of the parenthetical thought makes me guess that was Biden who is directly quoted there.  As a sidenote saying “I don’t want to say myths” says myths.

Anyway, this question of what exactly the relationship would be/is between the (Afghan) Taliban and al-Qaeda is the central one strategically.  And I have to say I don’t know.  There’s evidence suggestive of both directions.  For the record between the fork in the road that is the counterinsurgency strategy of Gen. McChyrstal (with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Mullen supporting) and the Biden plan (with Gen. Jones? and maybe Jim Webb supporting?) which is a counterterrorism only focus, I would lean towards option #3, the John Robb approach (i.e. open-source counterinsurgency).  But that will likely not happen, so we are left the with the population-centric, really Afghan city-centric, counterinsurgency strategy and the counterterrorism one.

At this point I’m agnostic on this one. 

If you follow the Afghan city-centric link, you will read an extremely perceptive post by Steve Coll on how a counterinsurgency strategy might resemble the later changed strategy of the Soviets.  The Soviets initially went in and did their classic scorched earth bloodletting counterinsurgency which of course failed.  They tried then to train a national army, put in a more solid leader, and control cities, leaving the countryside to the insurgents.

The Afghans don’t have that leader currently in charge.  And even if the McChyrstal plan is undertaken, the US will not be able to control the countryside yet again.  Nor of course the countryside that leaks over into Pakistan.

But more importantly in this networked age, the distinction between countryside and city is not entirely clear to me.  When the drugs and weapons are flowing into and out of both how do you create an economic ink-spot as opposed to just a military one that prevents the kinds of economic deals that fund various insurgent groups in Afghanistan?

There’s an argument that the Afghan Taliban would not be stupid enough to allow al-Qaeda back in since it cost them their power last time.   There were certainly Afghan Taliban who were willing to sell Osama up river in order to maintain power.  Mullah Omar of course was not one of them.  Has his mind really changed?  Somehow I doubt it, though again I doubt you can really build a nation-state in Afghanistan either.

The Afghan Taliban isn’t a totally unanimous crew as it once was, so maybe deals are possible with some but not others?

On the other hand, increasing troops inevitably will increase the insurgency–if only in numbers and not necessarily in the beginning as in force.  The insurgents could simply continue to do what insurgents do in contemporary warfare, namely wait out the occupiers and control the territory they are going to control.

But no one it seems to me can really predict what will happen if the US/NATO does not increase troop size (which really means begins the drawdown).  If you don’t raise in poker, you are about to show your cards.  There’s guesses, but neither Condi Rice saying that if you abandon Afghanistan will there automatically be another 9/11 nor Biden saying that there is no chance the Afghan Taliban would take al-Qaeda back.  I just don’t think anyone knows.

Here’s I think what we do know and what the President is caught between:

1. If you draw down, very likely a radicalized Taliban-like ideology spreads (is spreading already) into the “istan” countries of Central Asia.

2. If you increase, there’s no guarantee of anything except billions more dollars spent, lives lost and maimed, and probably no successful outcome. But if may, MAY, get you a managed chaos and a chance to save some face and leave later.

3. al-Qaeda continues to be and will continue to be a threat.  Whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and/or Somalia.

For more dissenting opinions from well informed people on this subject, read Spencer Ackerman here.

Last thought: Completely random.  When is some rapper going to insert a reference to Mc-Chyrstal (and probably a double entendre on “popping”) into a song.  I’ll give the 5 bones that Dan Drezner owes to me to said initiator.

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4 thoughts on “Agnosia Afghanistania

  1. I don’t get number 1. How will drawing down lead to an increase of Taliban style gov in other “istan’s?” Iran is not going to welcome the Taliban, they are more likely to kill them. Pakistan already has supported whoever they want in Pakistan.

    Al-queda will be a threat( at whatever level) regardless of Afghanistan. Is there any evidence Afghanistan is at this point crucial to AQ. I don’t think so.

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    • Not Iran or Pakistan. But places like Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and the like. The authoritarian-autocratic regimes to the north of Afghanistan. Then from there westward to the Transcaucasian areas (Chechnya for example already we know has had war and radicalization). Wherever globalization pushes (and they’re next along with sub-Saharan Africa), there is always indigenous resistance as well as criminal co-opting.

      On AQ. The presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan helps al-Qaeda in recruiting I would imagine. It also however hurts them as its goading the Pakistanis to give intel to the US for drone attacks.

      The more important question is what happens when the US/NATO begin to leave Afghanistan. If they did at this point–and I really think at any point in the future–the Taliban will control much of the East and South of the country. Would they give Al-Qaeda a sanctuary again?

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      • I’m just not sure how the Taliban spread to the neighboring countries just because of Afghanistan. The Taliban to a strong degree seem indigenous to Afghanistan. Countries with strong central authoritarian government are more able to withstand the Taliban. But also why do the other ‘stan’s matter that much to us in terms of our strategic view? I’m not sure Kazakhstan is our soft underbelly.

        Yes NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq helps AQ recruiting. That is a reason to draw down.

        I think many in the Taliban and afgan groups could easlly hear the message “we’re leaving now. Do what ever you want, but we have X number of troops/planes/death star’s overhear. Don’t bother us or we will blow stuff up like only American’s can.” We could also keep a smallish presence in Afghanistan as just such a warning. 20000 troops, heavy on special forces is a strong threat.

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        • Well the Taliban at least in the Afghan-Pakistan version has become basically merged with Pushtunism. But the Deobandi school of Islamism certainly can spread, already is and I think probably will get stronger.

          The history of autocracies shows they may keep various factions down for awhile but they have no long standing legitimacy with the people and foster such groups.

          Why we should care? That’s a legitimate question. But eventually it becomes something to deal with. It will be Russia and China’s both problems and opportunities. If we’re willing to make a deal with those countries then it makes sense to me. But I haven’t seen that kind of thinking from either side of the US foreign policy class.

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