Since I talked about Afghanistan three weeks ago, debate has really started to heat up. The article that prompted my post, Rory Stewart’s article for the LRB, has been followed up with him making this comparison about advising Obama administration officials on Afghanistan:
“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”
Clearly Stewart is not one to mince words, but the hue and cry has obviously reached the ears of senior officials as Richard Holbrook, Obama’s senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan- the filet of the foreign policy assignments- held an event at the Center for American Progress to reassure everyone they knew what they were doing. He brought along deputies responsible for various civil development activities like agriculture to give presentations on strategies for development to demonstrate the breadth of the program. Yet, the quote that will be the highlight of the night is his definition for success in Afghanistan: “I’ll know it when I see it.” It is hard to understand how the senior administration official for the most important administration foreign priority can not explain what exactly they are looking to accomplish.
I think an argument could be made for a relatively brief offensive that pushes the Taliban back on their heels, especially until after the upcoming elections, and we should undoubtedly be doing more development (after all, the GDP of Afghanistan is $12.5 billion, but our annual military expenditures there are $65 billion). However, it seems that the strategy is to increase troop levels to turn the situation around to convince Congress that we should stay long term. So if we succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, then our prize is we get to stay there?
Unlike Iraq, which for all of its difficulties is a fairly modern country with huge amounts of oil, Afghanistan has nothing, has never had anything and is nicknamed: “The Graveyard of Empires.” Why would we want to be there long term?
If the mission is counter-terrorism then bribery would be cheaper, special forces would be as effective and either way our counter-insurgency state building is operating where Al-Queda was, not where it is. As Marc Lynch points out, there are “a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world?”
I know that Obama officials know far more about the region than I do, but I’d like to see someone explain to me why we have to be there long term? (Though I do recommend reading intelligent people debate the subject for Abu Muqawama).