Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pull Me, Pashtu!

The above title is a bit of a lame, Spoonerist pun on Dr. Doolittle's two-headed hoofed beast, the pushmi-pullyu. Right at the outset, I apologize to one and all.

As the announcement of President Obama's strategy decision on the war in Afghanistan approaches, and the atrocities of the Taliban multiply daily, I'm wrestling with the two-headed monsters of the strategy: Is U.S. escalation giving our enemies exactly what they want, and if so, would that mean that it's necessarily wrong? Or, to put it another way, is this a case where each side is playing Rope-a-dope with the other?

On the Taliban side, the Rope-a-dope concept is that the more we are sucked into the fight, the more chance they can have to win the sympathy and support of the Afghan people. The Taliban are almost all from the Pashtu group, to which a plurality of Afghans belong (it's the largest group, though not a majority). In the non-Pashtu areas, they are generally loathed; in the Pashtun areas, from what I can see, the majority of people are on the fence: they don't long for a return of the bad old days of Taliban rule, but they are not enamored of the current regime, either. In all parts, the US/NATO forces are viewed as undependable interlopers, not yet as occupiers looking to set up shop permanently.

Moving in more forces, and inevitably also the foreign civilians who provide support for them, can change that dynamic over time in the direction the Taliban would want, making us look more like colonizers. It is true that the counterinsurgency strategy would increase contact between us and the locals, though if it's done right the quality of those interactions would be improved. The question, then, revolves around whether we have the ability and persistence to pull it off, and I can't be too optimistic about that one.

Our version of the Rope-a-dope would be a fallback approach if counterinsurgency doesn't work the way we planned. It starts from the premise that we will never gain strategic success fighting guerrilla warfare. When we are the ones in the outposts, surrounded by hostile territory that is readily infiltrated, they only fight us on those occasions when they can get numerical and tactical superiority: we'd re-create the chase against the Vietcong that was so frustrating to us. What happened at the end of the Vietnam War, after the US had pulled out, and it was clear we weren't coming back, was the Communist armies came out of the jungles, well-armed, and defeated the South Vietnamese in conventional battle.

If that happens in Afghanistan, we'll still be around, and we'll bomb the hell out of them. Like in 2001, only more thoroughly and definitively. It will just be too bad for the local population, though; I don't see us, after all this effort, pulling out and turning over the country to the hostiles. The current issue of The Nation, for all the sane arguments they make for exit, ignores that reality. The opponents of escalation, or even continuation, may have all the arguments, but they are all in vain: cut-and-run is not going to happen.

The strategy that the Obama administration seems to have settled upon (see the article leaking it in yesterday's New York Times, which includes a convincing level of detail, and which I would expect had been confirmed by multiple administration sources) would allow the Taliban free movement around the settled areas which our enhanced force levels will protect. They'd have their shadow Sharia in many rural areas, particularly in the Pashtun south, while we would presumably be able to control the Northern areas without beefing up force levels too much. In terms of its design, it's a "heads we win, tails you lose" approach. It's a strategy that seems to reduce the likelihood of total defeat to a minimum without overreaching. It will also seek to deny the dichotomy between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. The only question is, when does it end? and I'm afraid of the answer to that one.

I had advocated a more clearly identified and limited area in which to offer the Taliban their turf on a peaceable, autonomous basis. Frankly, I think the problems with my suggestion are two: 1) we can't trust them to keep the peace, and they couldn't trust our side, either (they would suspect a trap, and in a way, it would be); and 2) our side doesn't have sufficient control over the territory to ringfence them properly.

I find the Times leaked article and strategy totally credible. The details certainly need to be worked out, and also apparently more precision in the force levels required (which were not in the leaked report). The timing planned for Obama's announcement allows his emissaries to hold back on any promise of increased support for the Karzai government until the runoff election is completed Nov. 7, so as to gain their best efforts to conduct a visibly fair contest.

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