Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN….As we begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, should we increase our military presence in Afghanistan? Two writers, coming at the issue from very different perspectives, say no. First up is Rory Stewart, who runs an NGO in Kabul called the Turquoise Mountain, writing in Time:

Western troops can win any conventional battle against ill-armed extremists, but both history and the latest doctrine on counterinsurgency suggest that ultimate victory will require control of Afghanistan’s borders, hundreds of thousands of troops and a much stronger and more legitimate Afghan state, which could take Afghans decades to build. The West does not have the resources to match our ambitions in counterinsurgency, and we never will.

….So what exactly should we do about Afghanistan now? First, the West should not increase troop numbers. In time, NATO allies, such as Germany and Holland, will probably want to draw down their numbers, and they should be allowed to do so….A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining. The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.

….Our efforts in nation-building, governance and counternarcotics should be smaller and more creative. This is not because these issues are unimportant; they are vital for Afghanistan’s future. But only the Afghan government has the legitimacy, the knowledge and the power to build a nation. The West’s supporting role is at best limited and uncertain….Our military strategy, meanwhile, should focus on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency. Our presence has so far prevented al-Qaeda from establishing training camps in Afghanistan. We must continue to prevent it from doing so. But our troops should not try to hold territory or chase the Taliban around rural areas.

Next is Robert Kaplan, writing in the Atlantic, who examines Afghanistan as it relates to the historic rivalry between Pakistan and India:

The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India, and allowed Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif. It has kept alive the possibility of inviting India to help train the new Afghan army, and to help in dam construction in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar, abutting Pakistan. All this has driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.

….In the midst of all this, both Bush and Barack Obama talk simplistically about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. The India-Pakistan rivalry is just one of several political problems in the region that negate the benefit of more troops. As in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are in danger of conceiving of war in narrow military terms alone, and thus getting the politics wrong.

In the first place, we need vigorous shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi to address India’s and Pakistan’s fears about Afghanistan. Only by assuaging the ISI’s fears, while allowing India its rightful place in Kabul, can we get more cooperation from Pakistan in our fight against Islamic extremism….The lesson: To get bin Laden, we need a coherent regional policy of development that draws all three countries into an organic embrace. A manhunt alone will fail. A policy of nation-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan will, counterintuitively, lead to a successful manhunt.

Both pieces are worth reading in full. Stewart and Kaplan — one the head of an NGO who’s spent years on the ground in Afghanistan, the other a hawkish world traveler who has spent years reporting on the politics and culture of the Middle East and central Asia — have both come to similar conclusions: Afghanistan is not primarily a military problem. We can’t and shouldn’t abandon Afghanistan as we did in the early 90s, but our presence should be targeted, tightly constrained, and mostly economic and diplomatic. There’s a place for counterinsurgency there, but not for tens of thousands more troops trying vainly to control hundreds of thousands of square miles of unfriendly territory. I won’t pretend that my mind is entirely made up on this question, but for now, I’m inclined to agree.