Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Speculating About the Future of Afghanistan

I am participating this evening in a forum (already advertised on this blog earlier) on the Future of Afghanistan.  It is entitled "A New Way Forward."

Being the contrarian that I am, in my remarks, I will suggest a few futures but will suggest that some pasts may be the future.  As faithful readers of Spew might remember, I struggled last fall, as the Obama Administration considered what to do in Afghanistan, with Afghanistan's future--whether ISAF and the Afghan government could be successful and whether it was worthwhile.  As my remarks tonight will indicate, I have not yet reached certainty on any of that. 

So, what do I plan to say?  I hope to address three sets of ideas: myths/beliefs about the past several years; what the international community is likely to do (with focus on the US as the biggest force provider and leader of the effort), and what that means for Afghanistan's future:

Myth-ing Afghanistan
  • We have been at this (whatever this is) for eight or nine years.  Actually, if we mean a countrywide effort to engage in counter-insurgency/armed nation-building, one can either argue we have been doing it for three years, when NATO and ISAF spread throughout the country, or for about a year or two, as COIN doctrine began to be applied seriously.
  • Canada's Alone in Kandahar.  Nope, it is the lead nation of this part, just as the UK is the lead nation in Helmand, which has been somewhat more violent, and has the US has had the lead in nearly all provinces in the East.  And being lead does not mean being alone, as the Canadians have fought alongside not just Afghans but various other folks who have been wandering through Southern Afghanistan, including the Brits, the Americans, the Danes, the Gurhkhas, the Aussies, and others.  NATO does split up a territory and assign countries to particular hunks (as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo), but Canada is not alone. 
  • The missing part of the caveat story (apart from the Steve and Dave project, which will cover most of it) would be the civilian side.  Restrictions on what civvies can and cannot do are almost certainly more onerous and make the governance/reconstruction stuff far harder.
Possible International Futures.
  • Status quo:  The surge largely succeeds in breaking the momentum of the Taliban, so it becomes politically possible for the US to stick around in significant numbers (somewhere between the previous high and the surged level), that most of the rest of NATO sticks around (minus the Dutch and Canadians, who are committed to leave in 2010 and 2011 respectively).  Still much friction between countries with less restrictions (US, UK, Danes, Aussies, Poles, French, etc) and those with more (Germany, Italy, Spain, etc).  But the sustainability of this depends not just on violence but on US deficits!
  • Doubling Down:  Committing more troops than already committed.  Never mind.  Let's move on.
  • US Only: Getting closer to this now, unilateralism here is not as destructive as it was in Iraq.  Other countries may bail out as publics become more frustrated.  If the UK leaves, it will be hard for many others to stick around.
  • Obama Pulls the Plug: I can easily imagine Obama saying in 2011 that we tried our best, but we never got the Afghan elites to buy into it.  Cannot build on sand.  This would be controversial at home, but the war is quite unpopular now, especially with his base.  International community could not complain too much since only a few have invested seriously, and those folks are looking to the exits.  It would burn India and Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Russia and China.
Possible Futures of Afghanistan:
  • Status Quo Plus: Surge does what it is supposed to do--restore the situation back to 2004 or so.  Low levels of violence, Afghan government stumbles along.  ISAF remains at similar levels.  Costly in dollars but the cost in lives and in votes declines
  • Constitutional Reform/Reconciliation: Significant decentralization, with many former foes brought in.  ISAF becomes like KFOR (yes, there are still significant numbers of NATO forces in Kosovo), lower costs.
  • Somalia of the past 20 years:  ISAF departs, civil war erupts and then peaks and ebbs in violence over time.  US intervenes selectively against targets of opportunity.
  • Pakistan of the 2000s: ANA launches coup due to frustration with corruption, incompetence of government.  Leaves international in awkward position.  Violence may decline to 2004-06 levels. 
So far, I have sketched out possibilities but not probabilities.  My guess is the status quo plus--that militarily the US/NATO can do the job of disrupting the Taliban, but that the civilian side cannot achieve significant successes in reforming the Afghan government.   However, again, we should not be surprised if Obama decides that the US deficit is more of a threat to the US than terrorists in Afghanistan (which can be plinked by drones, which are far cheaper than tens of thousands of troops), and then either Somalia or Pakistan becomes Afghanistan's future. 

So, is this going to be a popular pitch tonight?


Bill Ayres said...

One dimension re: continued European participation: the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) problems. All of these countries are WAY over the deficit limits for the Euro zone, and some (Greece first, but not alone) are in danger of sovereign default, absent expensive bailouts. By the way, Greece is far and away the smallest economy of that group, so bailing out Greece may just make for a MUCH more expensive bailout of Portugal or Spain later.

If this gets pricey for the Euro zone, as it likely will, and if the Euro tanks, as it is showing signs of doing, Euro zone countries (and maybe even the UK) may not be interested in throwing money down the Afghan hole for much longer.

Hope the event went well.

Steve Saideman said...

Funny that you mention Greece. As I discussed in another post (, Greece has only 15 guys, so they cannot cut the budget by getting out. Italy and Spain have sizable forces, but are only really paying upkeep since they are not expending much in the way of resources/effort. Still, pretty expensive and an easy way to cut deficit....