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Although I grew up amidst government decision-makers at various fairly high levels, I evidently decided at some unconscious level that their life was not for me. Like some of the characters in Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle, I prized time to think more than influence, and of that I have had plenty. Yet as you all know, I inevitably wish, from time to time, that I could bring a lifetime of study to bear at a critical moment. The trade off is real and clear: had I spent my life pursuing the positions that would give me influence, I would have much less to say. But I have seldom felt a stronger urge to make my views known than in the last two weeks, after the release of General McChrystal’s classified assessment of the situation in Afghanistan kicked off critical decisions in Washington about what to do.
General McChrystal’s assessment and his recommendations for the future lay out a detailed and very ambitious plan for the expansion of both American and NATO (ISAF) and Afghan forces in Afghanistan and for a change in strategy to take the initiative away from the Taliban and make major progress towards securing the country under the control of the Afghan government within several years. The unclassified version of the document, to begin with, does not specify exactly how many new forces will be needed or exactly where they will be stationed. The document boldly and courageously advocates changes in the approaches of US forces, including better language capabilities, a different relationship with the population, and more focus on governance, but some doubt whether current training and service schools generate enough troops who can perform these missions. The document also calls for a vastly increased civilian effort and we cannot know if the necessary resources will be available.
Historical examples—particularly China in the late 1940s, Vietnam, and Iraq—help put these recommendations in historical context and, in particular, raise certain questions involving both the resources that will be required from the United States on the one hand, and the political changes which must take place in Afghanistan, if such as a strategy as has been proposed is to work. More importantly, the Obama Administration has to answer questions about the broader purposes of our involvement and the consequences of various possible courses of action.
In historical perspective, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Initial Assessment is its characterization of the insurgency on the one hand, and the Afghan National Government. Although observers with experience in Afghanistan are nearly unanimous in their belief that the bulk of the Afghan people do not want a return to Taliban rule, the Quetta Shura Taliban emerges from the assessment as a formidable, well-organized force—far more similar in its scope, organization and tactics, it seems to me, to the Viet Cong than to the various different opposition groups that we have faced in Iraq. Like the Viet Cong, it is setting up a parallel shadow government in much of the country, levying taxes, and using effective information warfare. The Afghan government, on the other hand, is described as commanding little authority and even less confidence. “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and [US and NATO forces'] own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust [the Afghan government] to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.”
The controversy over the recent election seems to represent a further step backward for the government. The blunt assessment is commendable, but inevitably raises questions as to whether the proposed strategy can succeed. In previous cases in which the United States has successfully assisted a local government in a counterinsurgency, such as South Korea during the Korean War, El Salvador in the 1980s, or the Philippines in the 1950s, the host governments, while far from perfect by American standards, have been far more effective than the Afghan government seems to be now. The description above inspires even less confidence than contemporary evaluations of the Chinese Nationalist government in the late 1940s or the various governments of South Vietnam, which were not successful. A new long-term American commitment requires either some confidence that the Afghan government can indeed make such revolutionary changes, or alternatively, a strategy that relies on traditional local elites rather than on a central government that as yet exists only on paper.
Recognizing current political problems, the assessment calls for a new, broad, deep commitment of American and other NATO forces to live and work among the Afghan people and help establish new, effective governmental structures linked to the national government in contested areas of the country. The numbers of people involved, which the assessment does not mention, must be carefully analyzed to provide a sense of the magnitude of the task. Afghanistan has about 31 million people, of which more than 40% are Pashtuns and thus the principle targets (at least for the time being) of the Taliban. Iraq’s population is estimated to be about the same as Afghanistan’s, but the Sunni population, which posed the bulk of the security problems, is only about 33% of the country. More importantly, the population of Afghanistan is far less dense, far less urban, and far more dispersed, suggesting that the provision and supply of adequate US forces for these new tasks will pose a substantially greater problem than the attempt to secure Iraq in 2007-9. After 8 years of war and repeated deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, our senior leadership must ask whether we can deploy and maintain resources adequate to General McChrystal’s proposed strategy. The supply of these forces may also present serious problems, since Afghanistan is a landlocked nation whose land communications with the outside world have recently proven vulnerable to attacks. The maintenance of public support within the United States will also remain a serious and critical problem.
Why are we fighting in Afghanistan? General McChrystal’s assessment reflects the Bush Administration’s original goals for Afghanistan in 2001 and its original approach to the war on terror. Those goals demanded the establishment of cooperative regimes in countries where terrorists had previously found safe havens. Since a friendly, unified, effective government of Afghanistan remains our objective, General McChrystal did his duty in making his best determination of how that might be achieved. Yet after eight years, it seems absolutely essential for the highest authorities, both civilian and military, to ask whether that sweeping objective is the best strategy for securing the United States and its allies against terrorist attacks. One can very easily argue—as a scholar at the Army War College in Carlisle did some six years ago--that it is either impossibly utopian or far too expensive in the long run to be practical. Two weeks, suspects in a plot to make terrorist attacks within the US have been arrested. According to press reports at least one of them was trained overseas—but in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Effective domestic intelligence and law enforcement, however, have evidently been sufficient to stop this plot here at home. The situation in Pakistan is of course also of tremendous concern to the government of the United States, but it is far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan to date has improved it from our point of view. And indeed, as is now generally recognized, we face the continuing problem in Afghanistan that very important elements within the Pakistani government do not share our objectives there, but regard the Afghan Taliban as an important ally. More limited objectives in Afghanistan deserve attention. Taliban strength seems mostly confined to Pashtun areas, leaving the possibility of maintaining a foothold in the country, and a capability to strike against terrorist camps, without making an enormous and doubtful effort to establish the authority of the central government over the whole country.
More than 60 years ago, the Truman Administration and Congress debated the question of further US assistance to the Chinese Nationalist government, then locked in a civil war with the Chinese Communists. China at that moment was surely as important strategically to the United States as Afghanistan is today, and its eventual loss to Communist could, and most certainly did, have significant negative consequences for American foreign policy for a long time to come. Secretary of State (and former Chief of Staff) George C. Marshall—one of the very greatest strategic thinkers the United States has ever produced—knew the situation first hand when he testified in executive session before a Senate Committee in early 1948. He was entirely preoccupied with trying to secure important areas of the free world against Communism. Yet in analyzing the situation in China he spoke wisely and courageously. He began by listing the very significant aid which the United States had given the Chinese government already, and continued:
“All the foregoing means, at least to me, that a great deal must be done by the Chinese authorities themselves—and that nobody else can do it for them—if that Government is to maintain itself against the Communist forces and agrarian policies. It also means that our Government must be exceedingly careful that it does not become committed to a policy involving the absorption of its resources to an unpredictable extent once the obligations are assumed of a direct responsibility for the conduct of civil war in China or for the Chinese economy, or both. . . .
“There is a tendency to feel that wherever the Communist influence is brought to bear, we should immediately meet it, head on as it were. I think this would be a most unwise procedure for the reason that we would be, in effect, handing over the initiative to the Communists. They could, therefore, spread our influence out so think that it could be of no particular effectiveness at any one point.
“We must be prepared to face the possibility that the present Chinese government may not be successful in maintaining itself against the Communist forces or other opposition that may arise in China.”
General Marshall did not believe, in short, that dubious chances of success justified transferring the very substantial resources necessary to help the Nationalist government from other tasks, such as the establishment of the NATO alliance and the rebuilding of the European economy. And indeed it is very possible that a full-scale intervention in China—advocated at the time by powerful voices in Congress and the press—would have done incalculable harm to American foreign policy as a whole in that critical period. Both the United States and, ultimately, the Chinese people, weathered the very serious short- and medium-term consequences of the fall of China to Communism.
General McChrystal has done exactly what he was asked to do: he has provided a frank assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and of what he believes is necessary to achieve the broad objective which he has been given. But before proceeding, higher authorities must do at least three things. First, they must seek out independent assessments of the chances that this new strategy would be successful. Second, they must accurately estimate its material, human and political costs, and ask whether those costs are justified by the value of the object in comparison to other needs both foreign and domestic. And thirdly, in my view, those two exercises must inevitably lead to some re-evaluation of our goals in Afghanistan in general and our strategy in the war on terror in particular, in light of both our successes and failures during the last eight years.