Afghanistan Agonistes 1: No Good Choices

Quick note, I have two blogs – this one, which started out on terrorism and has expanded to international affairs, technology, and ideas in general. Then I have Veepcritique, which started out as sort of the commentary track to my dissertation on the vice president, but now is more broadly on presidents, politics, and White House process. This particular rant is unique because part 1 is at here at TerrorWonk because it is about the policy aspects of Afghanistan. Part 2 is about the struggles in actually making policy on Afghanistan and the Vice President’s increasingly significant role.

Also, I was originally going to entitle this Sympathy for the Donald, but my sympathy for the President has evaporated.

Readers will have no doubts about my thoughts on that man in the White House. But the intractable problem of Afghanistan is not his doing and based on most of the reporting he is truly wrestling with the problem. And that is the ugly secret of the presidency (and of really most foreign policy issues) there are no good choices. You have to decide what costs you can live with.

In a nutshell, the president is wondering why we have been there for over 16 years and aren’t winning? If we aren’t winning with the current troop levels of 8400, and we just had 100,000 troops there, why will adding a few thousand now be anything more than a stop-gap?

These are very good questions. The president is right to ask them. And coming to the conclusion that we should remove our forces and leave Afghanistan to its fate is a perfectly valid conclusion. It is proving increasingly expensive in blood and treasure. It is proving a bad investment, time to cut our losses.

But, this comes at a pretty high cost. If the U.S. allied government falls, it will be a strategic defeat for the U.S. (although not truly fatal to U.S. power.) It will also be very, very bad for the people of Afghanistan – who have suffered terribly over the past several decades. An Afghanistan under Taliban control could again become a center for cultivating and exporting radical Islam.

The alternatives are to throw a huge number of troops to Afghanistan and really try nation-building. The problem is that it is hideously expensive and will involve significant casualties. Also, we just did that and it didn’t work.

Instead of going big in space with huge numbers of troops, we could go big in time – that is make a long-term commitment to a more modest force in Afghanistan. There the argument is that if the Taliban know we are not leaving so that they cannot ultimately win, they will be forced to come to the table. It is a good argument, and while expensive it is not inconceivable. Politically the American people want wars to end and a presence in Afghanistan keeps us wrapped up with neighboring Pakistan.

It appears the president will choose to send about 3800 more troops. This will buy some time for the government in Kabul. Will it be enough for that government to develop the capacity to defeat the Taliban or at least force them to the negotiating table? Perhaps, it’s a gamble. It has the political advantage that it removes any really hard decisions to a few years in the future. Presidents often like that.

It is this lousy set of options that led the president to seriously consider hiring mercenaries to do the job in Afghanistan. Most presidential aspirants campaign arguing that there are simple, easy solutions that only they know about. But, most politicians know quite well, that magic is not real.

Our first amateur president is learning this in real time, the hard way. Most hard problems are about deciding what kind of pain you can live with – defeat, endless commitment, or huge expense. The default is usually incrementalism and that appears to be the path chosen. It is understandable, but it too has costs. Incrementalism can lead to greater costs down the line as commitments slowly increase without a clear decision. A hard expensive decision at the beginning often leads to better policy. But here I do have some sympathy for anyone faced with such a decision.

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