Friday, August 28, 2009

Remaining in Afghanistan

Why should NATO stick around and what should it be doing in Afghanistan? There have been some calls lately for a more minimal effort with "realistic" goals. I have two basic reactions to this:

  1. First, the counter-insurgency campaign only started in 2006 and is only now getting some real focus and resources, after being a sideshow to Iraq. So any suggestions that we have been there long enough to have already made a big difference are fallacious.
  2. Second, haven't we already tried this from 2002-2005? Rumsfeld essentially said that we don't have to more than knock down the Taliban and the come back every few years to clean the place out of Al-Qaeda types.
So, making a claim that NATO ought to stay requires two things: making it clear that the interests are big enough to justify the costs, and asserting convincingly that NATO has a reasonable chance for success--not a guarantee of perfection but a calculation that the probable benefits outweigh the probable costs in comparison to pulling out entirely (which has its own costs and beneifts) and in comparison to some middle approach. Interests here and then can we do feasibility/success in the next post.

What are the interests at stake for the generic NATO country or for the collective?
  1. The first is obviously to prevent safe havens for terrorists, but we need to remember that the death toll from H1N1 in the US alone this year (estimated by my dentist to be 90k rather than the usual 45k killed by flu) is 30 times more deadly than 9/11. But terrorism has political and economic implications that far outstrip the direct harm it may cause (and I don't mean to trivialize the losses of individual families). We can limit the use of Afghanistan as a base of terrorism with a minimal effort as well as a full COIN effort, but not if we abandon the place entirely.
  2. Regional security is important as Afghanistan and Pakistan greatly affect each other. And given the threat that Pakistan poses to international security, the question may really be--what does more harm to Pakistan--ISAF in Afghanistan or benign neglect? Maintaining Afghanistan as a failed state should be bad for Pakistan, because it then becomes a haven for the flow of stuff into Pakistan. ISAF has had mixed effects, but a successful effort to defeat the insurgency should weaken the hands of those seeking to de-stabilize Pakistan. But care must be taken that the means to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan do not strengthen the Taliban and assorted problem folks in Pakistan.
  3. Political stability, even as weak as it is right now, has reversed the flow of refugees, helping to improve conditions not only for the refugees but for the neighbors bearing their burden.
  4. One could make an argument about alliance maintenance--that success here is important for NATO to prove it is capable, but I am leery. Too reminiscent of credibility arguments and Vietnam. I do think individual countries need to remain with NATO as long as NATO is there because the precedent of ditching NATO when the going gets tough is not a good one, and individual countries do need NATO to deal with their more conventional threats (Russia, Russia, ahem, Russia). So, if Canada wants out, I would suggest that Canada work to get NATO out rather than just leaving.
I think the best argument perhaps for trying to do COIN right is Somalia. That is, Somalia has experienced all kinds of international "treatments" except a sincere COIN effort. Benign neglect and some outside support for preferred contenders has not prevented Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Reports have terrorists moving from Pakistan after the more energetic effort made there to Somalia. Do we (US/NATO/whoever) have enough intel to be able to just duck into Somalia and wipe out the AQ types and then leave? I am not so sure.
Meanwhile, neglecting Somalia has had significant implications--for Kenya and Ethiopia as well as the piracy problem. Again, the piracy problem is not a huge crisis, but it does present a variety of challenges and is somewhat costly at the local level.

So, it may not be the case that Afghanistan is the most important place on the planet, but neglecting it (again) may have significant externalities down the road.

The next question is: can NATO and ISAF be successful at developing some kind of semi-self-sustaining Afghan government?

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