The Peace Prize Winner Debates War

Video here.  [Still having trouble embedding MSNBC, see ps below for more details].

Richard Engel is one of the few bigger name TV correspondents on foreign policy I actually tune in for. And I think he shows why in this clip. He basically shoots down Gen. McChyrstal’s COIN/nation-building plan as really a bridge (not yet built) too far. He ends up probably where I’ve ended up on this issue: send in a few thousand (maybe 10?) more troops possibly to strategic places like maybe Kandahar, try to build the Kabul-Kandahar road, and send in trainers to build up an Afghan army/police (and/or get the Europeans to shift to that function as we for a short time take on more kinetic operations).  Do whatever it is we are going to do relative to counterterrorism in Pakistan.  And then basically get ready for the inevitable draw down coming in the next 2-3 years.  Try to get the country (as best as possible) in a state of not complete total chaos, recognizing that there is going to be at best, a managed chaos.

What I take to be Engel’s point is that whatever the theoretical merits of nation-building/COIN (which have been debated at the League in some detail), it is simply too late in this war to hit the re-start button.  History is on the side of that assessment.  We went into Afghanistan, quickly won the war without completing it (i.e. let bin Laden get away) and then had no provisions for 8 years towards building a state, that is winning the after-war peace.  Winning the stability, in other words, the actual hard part.

Instead the US (along with the rest of the involved international community) backed a bunch of warlords and sent in slush funds of aid creating a kind of crony capitalism speculator’s bubble in the country, a rainy day economy of corruption, narcotics, and weapons.  We then installed a government that had no mechanism for re-integrating any members of the Taliban nor really gave sufficient representation to the Pashtun people, allowing the Taliban to take up their ethnic cause as their own (not entirely successfully to be fair, but to some degree a legitimator for them).  As Engel repeatedly states, essentially nothing has been built in since 2001 in Afghanistan.

Now we’ve seen what was clearly a rigged election, leaving the corrupt and corrupting government even more de-legitimized.  And now the President has won a Peace Prize (perhaps in an attempt to box him in on this war?).

To achieve victory in Afghanistan–defined as winning the peace–meaning a stable functioning government that has broad cross-ethnic appeal (and not crawling with various violent non-state actors) would take as McChyrstal honestly states, at least a decade of further entrenchment, 40-60,000 more troops over that time period, an Afghan army/police force numbering close to 600,000 persons, will cost (again as Engel points out) hundreds of billions of dollars, a regional diplomatic deal that would solve the Kashmir crisis, as well as bring in China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran to accept the reality of an independent Afghan state that none of those countries uses as a forward position against any of the others.   The plan for which is laid out in detail in this piece by Ahmad Rashid and Barnett Rubin.

All of which is as if not more important than more troops that switch to population-centric warfare and kill some more bad guys.  Ask yourself honestly what are the chances that is going to happen?

Obama is above all else a pragmatist and the reality of all this has to be coming into clearer focus for him.  Of those objectives, he may be able to make some movement on the diplomatic front.  Maybe.  Some but probably not much.  He can create a training force for an Afghan Army/Police.  But he can’t afford that kind of investment of manpower or money for that length of time.

PS: Memo to the MSNBC folks–why is it so hard to embed your video? You might want to fix that ASAP.

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3 thoughts on “The Peace Prize Winner Debates War

  1. First, “letting bin Laden get away” is not material to “completing the war.” This idea is based on a faulty assumption that

    that al Qaeda is a narrow problem that can be neatly disentangled from all of the other geopolitical issues, including especially the rise of Islamic extremism, that plague Central and South Asia.

    Why won’t counterterrorism work?

    We do not think that a shift to a predominately counterterrorism campaign utilizing airstrikes and the like is sufficient to beat back the threat to America’s interests. In fact, we argue that such thinking is rooted in a dangerous ignorance of al Qaeda and our terrorist enemies. Al Qaeda was never a self-contained problem that could be defeated by neutralizing select individuals – even though capturing or killing senior al Qaeda members surely does substantially weaken the network.

    Instead, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts deliberately fashioned their organization to be the tip of a much longer jihadist spear.

    Joscelyn and Roggio’s conclusion:

    In conclusion, the war in Afghanistan is part of a multi-dimensional contest for power between, on the one hand, al Qaeda and its allies and, on the other, America and her allies. The idea that al Qaeda is a discrete organization that can be neatly separated from the Afghan insurgency is a fantasy. All three of the major branches of the insurgency, as well as their sponsors, are closely allied with al Qaeda and have been for years.

    Air strikes using drones are a valuable tool for disrupting al Qaeda’s external network, thereby hampering the terror network’s capacity to strike the West. But such strikes are a tactic, not a strategy. And, it should be noted, these strikes have frequently killed senior Taliban commanders as well. This only emphasizes the degree of cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

    A more robust game plan for Afghanistan, and the region, is required. We understand that there is no immediate discussion of entirely drawing down America’s or NATO’s forces. But a more comprehensive commitment than that which is presently being employed is needed.

    Should the insurgents conquer Afghanistan once again, there is no doubt that al Qaeda would return to its former safe haven. But that is, in some ways, the least of our concerns. Their return to power would be a victory for all of those forces that spawned al Qaeda in the first place.

    Read more:, your “plan” is impossibly vague:

    send in a few thousand (maybe 10?) more troops possibly to strategic places like maybe Kandahar, try to build the Kabul-Kandahar road, and send in trainers to build up an Afghan army/police (and/or get the Europeans to shift to that function as we for a short time take on more kinetic operations). Do whatever it is we are going to do relative to counterterrorism in Pakistan.

    I.e., maybe, maybe, do whatever, get the Europeans to shift to that function…. It hinges on getting the Europeans to shift to that function… But when have we been able to get the Europeans to do anything like assume more responsibility in Afghanistan? How would you change this now? With Obama’s famous “face?” Or what?

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  2. Roque,

    I feel like you just quote a bunch of other people saying stuff as if that were automatically an argument delivered. There are certainly people who take a different view on this war no doubt. But just citing them doesn’t mean they are right–anymore than I am or someone I would agree with.

    The plan I offer might be vague, but that is because I don’t think the kind of goals that are normally ascribed as victory in these kinds of wars are practically realizable given the constraints of budget, civilian democracies back home, and military sizes in a non-draft age. [I’m not pulling for a re-institution of the draft btw, just a realistic assessment of what can and can’t be done by one country with an entirely volunteer armed forces].

    I think as I said the best that can be achieved is a managed chaos. But of course history doesn’t allow for multiple experiments to test out various theories. Anything can create the future it claims is the bound to occur one. Which maybe was not pre-ordained after all.

    Who knows? The future is contingent. Maybe al-Qaeda is (partially?) separable and maybe it is not. Maybe treating them as if they can’t be untangled brings two groups together, thereby becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The future can’t be controlled or predicted. Anything we do (or don’t do as well as what others do) sets new possibilities and closes others off. There’s ultimately I think no one for sure right answer on this subject. As if it were just laying outside and we just have to find it. I think there are probably better and worse options, but none in my mind are good. Which is why I think you need to figure out how to salvage whatever is salvageable (in my mind not much but something) and then start the painful process of extrication. Which is itself fraught with all kinds of unpredictable outcomes.

    Maybe the US leaves Afghanistan and an attack is launched on the West from Somalia. Would we blame that on the departure from Afghanistan? Maybe we stay in Afghanistan and some local group launches an attack that they blame on the occupation.

    It’s very difficult to have these conversations because they are so politicized. Terrorism ultimately means a country might do everything it possibly can to defend itself and do it well and still be attacked (tragically). But the way others talk it is as if there is some magic bullet or simple one to one correlation that America can determine all events in the world. It can’t.

    I have no idea what will happen when (as I think is inevitable) the US starts in the rather near future to leave Afghanistan–at least in a full-on combat sense. I have some guesses, but nobody really knows for sure. And anyone who claims they do know for sure I think is full of it.

    But I do standby the opinion that the US doesn’t have it in them to nation-build Afghanistan. We don’t have the knowledge base, the civilian-military structure in place governmentally, and even if we did we have already lost the backing we had of the locals by squandering a near decade’s worth of the time in the country.

    I also know that doing COIN without doing nation-building just delays the inevitable. The inevitable being a pull out. It makes the pull out more difficult and more costly. Not to mention the lives lost and the money spent in the meantime. At best it reduces the fighting capacity of the enemy for when you do leave. That’s why I put a middle position forward as an option. Not perfect by any means, but at this point there certainly are any good options, much less perfect ones.

    And as regards the Europeans, I think you could get them out of theater zones and into training. Canadians too. That seems like a deal they might embrace. Or if not do the training themselves, pay a bit more for the trainers. Especially if it is linked up with a view towards downshifting in the medium/long term even if it involves a bit of a ramp up in the meantime.

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  3. I

    feel like you just quote a bunch of other people saying stuff as if that were automatically an argument delivered. There are certainly people who take a different view on this war no doubt. But just citing them doesn’t mean they are right–anymore than I am or someone I would agree with.

    These aren’t just a bunch of other people. They’re experts on this stuff and have actually spent time over there. That’s why I quote them and because their view contrasts with yours. I thought it would be interesting for you to respond to them. For example, you speculate about al Qaeda’s being seperable from the Taliban. The authors of the article I cited say it isn’t. They are not speculating though. They give a lot of supporting evidence for their conclusion. Again, they really know stuff. They’re not just sitting around the house bored and coming up with battle plans like we are. I really can’t come up with an opinion on my own on this. My inclination is to support withdrawal ASAP. I can’t see any real strategic interest there for us and I’d rather let the Afghanis just fight it out for themselves. But then, this situation is unusual for the high degree of consensus among military experts in favor of COIN. This in itself is enough for me to question and revise my opinion.You say that the US lacks the ability to nation build. I disagree. We have the ability and we’ve used it successfully in the past. But the question is whether we have the political will for it. I agree that under today’s leadership (Obama/Congress) we don’t have it in us.

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