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July 15, 2009

Comments

Not a lot of time on my hands at present to respond (or even read! -- sorry) the article in full, but wanted to link to an article that makes a pretty good rebuttal to the idea of Afghanistan as a "graveyard of empires" or ungovernable region.

Will get back to you -- thanks to Eric for the post!

I'm not sure I buy Bergen's arguments. Re: graveyard = yes, there were "military victories" but there was little or no staying power. I mean, we already won a military victory in Afghanistan. Does that make it a successful empire-building experience?

Further, there are obvious differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, just as there were differences between Vietnam and Iraq. Yet, despite the differences, Vietnam and Iraq were both failures (massive, resource draining, failures). So too will our effort in Afghanistan be a failure unless we scale back our goals and tailor our strategy and outlays to match.

Bergen, like the others, makes little or no mention of costs or resources, other than to say that "The United States can neither precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan nor help foster the emergence of a stable Afghan state by doing it on the cheap; the consequence would be the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda."

So, we can't do it on the cheap. But not on the cheap will run in the neighborhood of $3 trillion. Where do we get $3 trillion from? When we can't find $1.5 for health care for our citizens? When our deficit just hit $1 trillion?

FWIW, it looks like real HCR will happen -- or is at least possible -- in a largely deficit neutral way.

http://cboblog.cbo.gov/?p=324

Seriously though, when I have some real time to dig my teeth into this...

It strikes me that 'a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000' costing $3 billion a year isn't overstretch. The population of Afghanistan is 32 million (larger than Iraq). Comparing this number to a peacetime UK strikes me as a bad comparison, but even here were not too far off. Total UK military forces including reserves are 440,000 and policed another 150,000 or so, for a total of a bit under 600,000.

So were talking about a Afghanistan with about 40% more security forces per capita than a peacetime UK.

Obviously there are some social differences between Afghanistan and advanced industrial countries. But peasant societies of the 20th century have been highly mobilized for the military. Serbia, with a population under 5 million fielded 450,000 men in August 1914.

Figures from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Armed_Forces

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/1717038.stm

Stefan: the overstretch isn't based on proportion to population, but rather in answering the question of how does Afghanistan come up with the $3 billion a year?

As Stewart points out, the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million.

That's $2.4 billion in supplementals needed to pay for the force, and even then, the Afghan government would have $0 leftover to handle every other function of state.

Eric,

$3 billion comes from foreign sources. Not a big cost item for the US (less than 1% of US DoD spending). I sort of doubt the $3 billion figure, but even with a higher figure would be very affordable -- there are a lot more tempting budget cuts out there than saying this isn't doable even as a multi-decade project.

"Further, there are obvious differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, just as there were differences between Vietnam and Iraq. Yet, despite the differences, Vietnam and Iraq were both failures (massive, resource draining, failures). So too will our effort in Afghanistan be a failure unless we scale back our goals and tailor our strategy and outlays to match."

How long do we keep saying that Iraq waas a failure, at least in comparison to Vietnam it has, up until now, been a lot more successful.

Stefan,

It would establish the near-permanent dependency of the Afghan government on US largesse. The definition of a client state. That makes me very nervous.

Also, in a nation with weak institutions, such a big strong army could become a threat to the government via coup.

If I keep hitting myself on the head with this hammer, it'll probably kill me.

If I stop hitting myself on the head with this hammer, there's no telling what might happen.

Better the devil you know, I always say.

[klunk]

Eric,

yes, there are problems with building a large US funded Afghan security force. But unaffordability to the US, as you previously stated, isn't one of them. Focusing on the real political issues this creates is probably more informative.

(a noted counter-terrorism practitioner - aka, a "killer") ...

This to my mind calls everything you have written into question ... though I MAY try and wade through it once I calm down.

If you are going to be serious be serious ... if you're going to indulge in name calling write shorter posts ... they're easier to ignore

But what Stewart's offering as an alternative - 20,000 SOF and more development aid - isn't that much better. It's basically a Phoenix program plus aid that probably won't be delivered because of violence. I'd have more respect for his analysis if he actually followed through on it and called for a withdrawal. As it is, he's trying to have it both ways and failing.

This to my mind calls everything you have written into question ... though I MAY try and wade through it once I calm down.

Not name calling at all!!! That's how the military community refers to counterterrorism vs. COIN practitioners. It's not derrogatory at all. CounterT practitioners kill terrorists. COIN practitioners focus on the population - less so on killing terrorists.

Calm. Down.

But unaffordability to the US, as you previously stated, isn't one of them. Focusing on the real political issues this creates is probably more informative.

Did I actually state that this was unaffordable to the US? Actually, I didn't. I said that the Afghan govt had no hope in paying for it, and would thus need $3 billion in payouts.

I never said that amount was too much for the US to gather. But I did say that it would create a bad dynamic.

I'd have more respect for his analysis if he actually followed through on it and called for a withdrawal. As it is, he's trying to have it both ways and failing.

I tend to agree that full withdrawal is better. But I appreciated Stewart for starting the conversation.

you know, steve, i think you're misreading eric's use of the word "killer". it's a term of art; it describes one approach as opposed to other approaches.

here's mcchrystal himself from an npr interview:

npr: Your experience is in the area of special operations. You're basically a hunter-killer. You've hunted down bad guys like Saddam Hussein, but this is a very different fight; it's a counterinsurgency. How is it different from your previous job?

mcchrystal: It's interesting. I did spend an awful lot of time as a counterterrorist, which was in the hunter-killer mode....

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105630899

here's description from u.s. news and world report:

"That has led some to wonder if McChrystal may be more of a bad-guy killer than the gentleman-general counterinsurgency expert, exemplified by General Petraeus...."

http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/iraq/2009/05/18/mcchrystal-represents-a-new-direction-at-the-pentagon-and-in-afghanistan.html

i found those just by googling "mcchrystal killer".

you might want to do that sort of thing yourself next time, instead of switching into outrage mode.

I'm headed out for a family vacation with internet access qustionable, so I can't really fulfill my role as the loyal opposition on this subject, but this point
there is little doubt that Obama would pay a steep political price if he were to withdraw and an attack occurred that had some traceable connection to Afghanistan. While an attack emanating from hubs in, say, Europe or Yemen may be just as (or more) likely, those connections would not prove as damaging despite the underlying reality of the terrorist threat.

hits the nail on the head. Just because some realities may be political, it does not mean that they can be waved aside. I'd also echo steve's point about name calling. It isn't really helpful.

Interesting article by Stewart, although I agree that the policy suggestions are a bit wishy-washy given the implications of his analysis. He wrote a couple of books about his travels in Afghanistan and his time working in the coalition government in Iraq, both of which are quite good.

Eric writes:

"Did I actually state that this was unaffordable to the US? Actually, I didn't. I said that the Afghan govt had no hope in paying for it, and would thus need $3 billion in payouts.

I never said that amount was too much for the US to gather. But I did say that it would create a bad dynamic."

I don't know about 'would create a bad dynamic' -- the Afghan government budget looks like it is pretty dependent on foreign funding right now and for the foreseeable future, with taxes making up about 20% of spending now, before the increase in security force strength. I don't think kicking in another $3 billion on top of the more $2.6 billion currently provided by foreign sources isn't a going to 'create' a bad dynamic. This is already a financially dependent state.

The question here is what actual trade-offs there are: a state with 450,000 security forces financed (cheaply) from abroad vs. a country with a Taliban dominated society, or some intermediate solution. It is not clear that more foreign financing given how much foreign financing is currently going in will lead to a more authoritarian outcome: there are other dynamics at work as well and outcomes are not predetermined by funding levels. On the other hand, making the system work with much less foreign funding or declining security looks like it is not sustainable.

No time now to write more deeply about this, just a plea for you not to skip too many corners in your arguments.

The goals. Britain and the USSR had different goals than the US.

We don't have to defeat the Taliban. The US is only after the Taliban for protecting al-Queda. Once we kill Osama, we can mellow out. We lived with the Taliban in Kabul before, we could again.

But barring such a radical change, all we need is some other Pashtun bastard to take over and keep the Taliban down somewhat. Once Osama is dead, we can call it victory.

No need to install shopping malls, democracy, accountability and all that other foreign stuff.

And there's no oil there, so Afghanistan is not going to field strategic weapons.

Hey -- still not a lot of spare time, but I wanted to speak to the central point that "it's almost impossible to decipher an actual policy direction from the pomp and flourish":

From where I sit, Obama himself has been very clear on the fundamental mission in Afghanistan:

"Now, I can articulate some very clear, minimal goals in Afghanistan, and that is that we make sure that it's not a safe haven for al-Qaida, they are not able to launch attacks of the sort that happened on 9/11 against the American homeland or American interest."

Now, as to how valuable denying Al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan is -- Eric and I have debated* this subject in the past, and many of his points are brought up here as well.

I look forward to when I can sit down and get into some good threading on the subject again.

*sorry, link wasn't working -- it was this site, on the thread for Eric's article "Hanging Out with Young Thugs that All Carry Nines"

Also, sorry about the lack of link on Obama quote -- it was from an interview w Jim Leher.

Point: I don't have too much of a problem with the minimal goals as listed. My problem is the other, more grandiose rhetoric and what that might signal. Also, the potential for mission creep - not to mention the enormous costs involved.

"(earning itself the moniker 'Graveyard of Empires')."

As I've pointed out here before, and don't care to reiterate, or go find my last comment on the topic, this is generally grossly exaggerated.

"Oh, and even then we'll only succeed if we also eradicate the poppy crop"

It's late enough that, again, I'm not going to cite again, but this is out of date; we've officially changed policy on this; there was various coverage of this good news in the past month. One of those things I mean to blog about....

Oh, okay, see here, for example: US changes course on Afghan opium, says Holbrooke. U.S. reverses Afghan drug policy, eyes August vote; U.S. to phase out poppy eradication.

Etc.

"How long do we keep saying that Iraq waas a failure, at least in comparison to Vietnam it has, up until now, been a lot more successful."

"At least in comparison to Vietnam"?

There's a bar set low enough that a quark couldn't do the mambo under.

I've said for a long time that 9-11 was a mental illness inducing trama for the US. We cannot think rationaly about policy vis-a-vis funny looking Muslims, because of our collective amygdala hijack. Politically this manifests as, "If I (some politician) do anything that allows the opposition to blame my actions for a hypothetical future attack -the political cost to me (and by extension to my side in the culture war) -is unthinkably bad". So outside of policy wonk style discussions, it is impossible to propose a rational evaluation of costs, benefits, or risks.

Until we recognize, that we have been traumatized into a national mental illness, I don't think we will be able to get past this problem. But no one wants to raise that awareness because, at least in the early phase, it would be politically highly unpopular.

At least the cops don't come in/spare us the legal poems

Eric, I find it a little odd that you see to have an affinity for some of my all time faves.

Glad to be back Eric*:

I'm really glad you responded -- as the post was, I was having some trouble unpacking it for discussion^, so I can really appreciate a brief summary that makes these distinctions.

You mention:

1) the "more grandiose rhetoric and what that might signal"

2) "the potential for mission creep"

3) "the enormous costs involved"

Seems, off the bat, that these involve really three different discussions -- points 1 and 2 relate more to how the administration may be cornering itself into a box in not properly adjusting the population's expectations, while 3 stems right into our conversation on the very value of denying AQ a safe haven.#

And just like that I have to get going -- but I'll be back shortly, and look forward to continuing this conversation.

*sorry I'm taking so long to post; the comments below were a point I tried to put up last night -- technical troubles

^not unclear, mind you, just a little on the intricate side -- not complaining in the least!

#For example, if denying AQ safe haven in Afg. is of the utmost necessity to US National security, then the potential costs are of little importance.

"It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners."

I just read almost the very exact thoughts about Africa by Paul Theroux in his Dark Star Safari. I must read book.

It's late enough that, again, I'm not going to cite again, but this is out of date

Gary, I wasn't so much referencing current policy, as what the CNAS group and other "optimists" have been saying were necessary steps to succeed.

Eric, I find it a little odd that you see to have an affinity for some of my all time faves

Well, have you ever seen us both in the same room?

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