The Afghan "Surge": Beginning, Middle, or End?
December 2, 2009
Last night President Obama described a new way forward in Afghanistan. Throughout months of intensive deliberations, it was always clear that answers to two key questions would determine how we proceed. The first: where collectively do we want to go? Rebuild Afghanistan from the bottom up or reinforce our strategic position against those that might use Afghanistan as a terrorist sanctuary? The second: where are we along the path toward our chosen destination? Just beginning? In the middle? Or, nearing the end? This author suggests that the president answered both questions definitively last night.
Q1: What is the U.S. and allied purpose in Afghanistan—where are we going?
A1: The U.S. effort in Afghanistan now has substantially increased resources, focus, and commitment. However, the mission remains limited—“disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda [AQ] and its safe havens” in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And, once defeated, prevent AQ’s return to both nations. There is a division of labor. We do Afghanistan while we cajole Pakistan into action on their side of the border. Meanwhile, we do what we can there without destabilizing the one state we desperately need to stay afloat.
It can be credibly argued that AQ is already disrupted, dismantled, and defeated in Afghanistan. “Defeat,” after all, is more about denying the enemy his purpose than it is destroying him in detail. It is no longer safe or cost effective for AQ to operate in and from its former sanctuary in any consequential way. While we can stipulate to the notion that total eradication of sanctuary is impossible—there will be some AQ presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity—preventing AQ’s reconstitution as a regional force with extraterritorial reach is well within our grasp and also, logically, now job number one. The president has chosen to reinforce our strategic position against AQ, opting to manage the sanctuary problem vice rebuild Afghanistan. He recognizes that the Taliban has come to personify safe harbor for AQ. Therefore, he has opted temporarily to “surge” into their sanctuaries to deny their purpose as well. The mission remains and should remain just that simple (and limited).
Q2: Where are we now with respect to these limited pursuits—that is, defeat and prevent?
A2: The bottom line? In absolute terms, the Afghan campaign is nearing an end. There is finally a game clock. Better said, there is now an obvious but nonetheless loose benchmark for our starting to gradually turn the war over to the Afghans—July 2011.
This is likely unsatisfying to pundits on all sides—too long for some, too specific for others—precisely perhaps because it is too strategic. Our surging more forces into Afghanistan’s south and east provides Afghans (not necessarily the current government) with a reasonable opportunity to seize control of their own political and security future—bottom up or top down. Along the way, we should recognize that we have myriad options for any lingering terrorist problem there if they fail to do so. The 18 to 20 months of operating space also allows the United States, its allies, and the Afghans to put the Taliban, its warlord associates, and remnants of AQ under extreme pressure; a substantial down payment on a future, low-visibility Afghanistan-Pakistan counterterrorism strategy focused on relentless pressure and prevention.
Finally, the July 2011 target also gives the current U.S. and allied team 18 to 20 months to pursue limited aims aggressively, while conveniently offering the administration “check back in a year and a half” as a reasonable response to the inevitable “where do we stand now” of modern warfare and the 24-hour news cycle. To the extent we remain focused on a limited set of modest objectives—again “defeat” and “prevent”—the 2011 decisions will be much easier.
Recall that the Iraq surge marked “the beginning of the end” there as well. The external dynamics were nearly identical—a failing partner, an unpopular military commitment, dwindling international support, deep political divisions domestically, declining national reserves. Against this backdrop, the Iraq surge was foremost tacit recognition that the United States and its military were running out of patience, time, human capital, and material resources. It was a one-off spike, not a new plateau. It too had an implicit time limit. And, the war there and the character of our commitment to it would (and did) change once that time was up.
Iraq and Afghanistan are not identical fights, but they are now similar in one important respect—the purpose behind their “surge” operations. Both surges convey the image of aggressive trauma medicine, not long-term care. The intent of both to resuscitate a critically ill patient, not necessarily save that patient from personal irresponsibility over the long haul. The U.S. surge in Iraq in 2007 and its cousin surge in Afghanistan represent crisis applications of new-age military science (opposed stabilization, counterterrorism, security force assistance, and local security innovation) with field expedient social science (provincial reconstruction teams, local development, formal and informal governance, reconciliation, and reintegration). All of these now will be combined in Afghanistan, as they were in Iraq, to achieve objectives we can live with—not necessarily those we would have preferred to achieve in the beginning.
Q3: What do the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq portend for future similar military commitments?
A3: In the end, both the irregular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more indicative of an emerging post-counterinsurgency era than many might care to admit. If threats of disorder—state failure, insurgency, civil war, terrorism, consequential crime—are today as (if not more) consequential than are threats from a functioning but unfavorable order—aggressive regional powers—and if transformational intervention against the worst disorder is now always assumed to be a decades-long enterprise, then intellectual pursuit of more modest alternatives is called for. Prevention, of course, is preferred but far from foolproof. New thinking is required on how the United States might pursue acceptable (vice ideal) and sustainable and manageable (vice permanent) outcomes in the next Iraq and/or Afghanistan at lower strategic cost. Today’s conventional wisdom on the subject engenders too much strategic risk.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and a former U.S. Army strategist.
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