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.