Sunday, March 13, 2011

Give the Man What He Wants?

President Karzai has just asked NATO and the US to cease operations in Afghanistan.  This is in reaction to a tragic mistake where a group of kids were killed.  Perhaps he is grandstanding for the sake of the domestic audience.  Otherwise, if this is a real request, what is NATO to do?  The stated purpose of the mission to support the development of Afghan institutions and stability.  If the President of said country does not want the US/NATO operating there, what can we do?
  1. We could cease military operations, which then means what?  A quick withdrawal would possibly followy since a purely defensive stance would increase the risks to the international forces.  The irony is that the countries that are most comfortable with operating purely in a defensive stance are the ones already closest to the door.
  2. We could re-define operations so that smaller-scale patrols and such can continue, but there would still be a risk of killing civilians.  
  3. We could follow his advice and move our forces into Pakistan to fight the enemy there.  Insert maniacal laughter here.  Nope, that ain't gonna happen.
  4. We could hope that Karzai changes his mind or that he really did not mean it.  This is probably the best bet for what will actually happen and what is the best choice in general.  Karzai talks a good game, but usually is speaking to one audience at a time, either not realizing or not caring that other audiences are also listening. 
Once again, Afghanistan demonstrates that you cannot even rent leaders too easily.  Karzai is not our agent, or, if he is, he is a live demonstration of the worst of principal-agent problemos.  He may be focused on his survival, and he may not get killed in the immediate aftermath of a NATO pullout.  But I would not bet the over on his survival either.

Once again, the ratio of civilians killed is 75% by the other side and 25% by NATO.  NATO is trying hard to reduce such casualties but the other side pursues tactics to induce the outsiders to put civilians in harm's way.  The proper comparison is not so much the current status quo versus no civilians killed by outsiders, but the current status quo as compared to an Afghanistan sans US/NATO.  As long as the US and NATO stick around, there will be mistakes.

My ambivalence about the war just gets deeper and deeper.  It would be easy to call for a pullout, but there is more at stake in Afghanistan than Karzai's position.  If we were to leave, the lives of Afghans would certainly worsen in the short term with a much deeper, more brutal civil war.  Karzai might be willing to sell out to the Taliban, but a good hunk of the country will not.  The impact on the neighborhood from a western defeat would not be that great either. 

So, once again, we have lousy choices. 

1 comment:

PSmith said...

Thank you for the nuanced conversation and for recognizing that there is no right answer to this problem. We are in a tough position with lousy choices - to be sure.

The outlook seems bleak that if we stay that there will be any real chance of "success" - whatever that means these days. As you argue, "As long as the US and NATO stick around, there will be mistakes."

From my perspective, it is time to leave. Yes, there will be negative ramifications. However, by remaining we have become an occupying force and will continue to kill civilians and our own armed forces. Not to mention the cost to taxpayers of continuing operations. And for what? This is not a war that we can win, it is time for us to back down and start looking at other ways to engage with Afghanistan.