Thursday, June 11, 2009

Afghanistan as the Main Show

In today's papers, there is a report about the new General, McChrystal, who is going to run the effort in Afghanistan and how things are going to work differently now. This story comes a few hours after I was asked by a French scholar what difference was Obama going to make in Afghanistan, given that much of the discussions of a revised approach preceded his tenure.

I think the most obvious and important difference between Bush and Obama here is on priorities--Iraq was Bush's, Afghanistan is Obama's. Washington, DC barely has enough for one crisis at a time. I found this out in 2001 in my second week on the Joint Staff when the Balkans went from being the main focal point of US pol-mil policy to being on the back burner as a result of 9/11 and then into deep freezer of US foreign policy as Iraq supplanted Afghanistan in 2002.

The story linked above is quite striking in the mobilization of senior personnel for the mission in Afghanistan--3 star deputy, a bunch of 1-2 star generals from the Joint Staff and from near retirement being deployed to Afghanistan, three ambassadors to help out Eikenberry--who as a general ran US operations in Afghanistan.

Some things we ought to consider in all of this:
  • Is this Obama or is this Gates? Gates was supposed to be a temporary bridge, but he is definitely making big decisions, and Obama seems to be quite comfortable with him. The speculation in December 08 of one year and then out is probably out of date.
  • Most of the folks moving to Afghanistan are coming from the Joint Staff--this is not inconsequential. I was always told that these were the best folks in the US military, but I was told this by folks on the Joint Staff, so it could have been self-serving and my experience was clearly affected by selection bias--I mostly encountered JS people in my one year in the Pentagon. However, in that year, there did seem to be a significant difference between JS people and officers elsewhere. The Joint Staffers were more curious, more flexible in their thinking, and tended to have better management styles (no Tommy Franks suck up to the folks above and step on the folks below). So, moving JS people to Afghanistan would seem to be a good thing [note that the boss of the J-5, my directorate for my time was first Gen. Abizaid and then Gen. Casey, who both did not do so well in Iraq--but for Abizaid I wonder how much of that was in his hands].
  • Obama/Gates were pretty unilateral in all of this--Commander of ISAF, one of McChrystal's hats (along with Commander of Op Enduring Freedom, which is an hoc, coalition of the willing, almost entirely American effort) is a NATO job, and his appointment should have been vetted by the Military Committee of NATO and then the North Atlantic Council. It seems like the Obama administration is in a bit of a rush, but to completely ignore the NATO process seems Rumsfeld-esque and unnecessarily abrasive (ok, that is probably redundant).
  • While I concur that more attention should be paid to Afghanistan and to the larger regional picture, the US still has more troops in Iraq and if/when things go south there, a lot of difficult decisions will have to be faced, like does US backtrack on its commitment to get out of the cities? How does it address conflicts between the Sons of Iraq/Awakening vs. the government of Iraq, etc? Even if things ultimately work out ok in Iraq, the situation is going to require CONSTANT VIGILANCE.
  • One related thought on Pakistan--when the US wanted Pakistan to do more with its own Taliban problem, was heavy-handed the approach Obama was hoping for? The Pakistan approach to counter-insurgency seems to be the opposite of what Petraeus has been trying to do.
And one more lesson learned from France--they call what they are doing in Afghanistan stabilization not because they think they are doing peacekeeping but because Algeria and Indochina has given counter-insurgency heaps du baggage.

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