Saturday, September 26, 2009

Afghanistan - Buchanan v Brooks

A few things seem to be consistently absent from the musings of proponents of the continuation or escalation of the war in Afghanistan:
  • Any sense of what the victory would look like - what it would mean to "win";

  • Any sense of how victory would be accomplished, save perhaps by "sending more troops" or "stayling longer"; and

  • Any sense of how much time it would take to achieve even an undefined "victory".

It's pretty easy to make fun of David Brooks for his inconsistency in relation to... everything beyond his apparent conceit that all of the world's problems can be solved militarily. (Come to think of it, you can make fun of that conceit, as well.) It's no surprise that he insists that the war must go on, with a massive escalation of both forces and combat operations.
The record suggests what Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly understands — that only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success. This is a doctrine, as General McChrystal wrote in his remarkable report, that puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission, that acknowledges that insurgencies can only be defeated when local communities and military forces work together.

To put it concretely, this is a doctrine in which small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.
This is probably correct - that our path to a "victory" that's meaningful to U.S. eyes, we need to commit tens of thousands of new troops, put them in the direct line of fire throughout Afghanistan, and keep them there for... Brooks doesn't say, but probably for a generation or two. There's a peculiarity to the type of argument Brooks offers:
These are the realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.
That is, we're repeatedly told how "tremendously unpopular" the Taliban is in Afghanistan, but at the same time that if U.S. forces depart they'll easily regain control of the nation.
Second, the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor. This is not Vietnam or even Iraq.
If Brooks' claim is true, simply arming and offering basic militia training to the masses, backed up with U.S. air power, logistical support, and partnering on more difficult operations, should be enough to keep the Taliban out of power forever. With a reasonably stable central government and a U.S.-backed, U.S. trained national army (even if rather ragtag, let alone what Brooks describes as "a successful institution") it should be even easier. So what's really going on? The most obvious inference is that the Afghan people have a Churchillian view of Taliban rule - that it's the worst form of government except for all the others, or at least the alternatives they're being offered. If that's the case it doesn't bode well either for the success of a counter-insurgency or for the long-term success of the Afghan government.

I'm not sure what approach to Afghanistan could have pleased Pat Buchanan, who isn't a fan of either U.S. military intervention or nation-building. Recall his words at the time:
I completely support what we're doing in Afghanistan, by the way. It's being morally done in a just way. I back the president in what we're doing. But I urge him to be cautious in Phase 2.
What "Phase 2" would have pleased Buchanan? Did he ever take the time to define a scope for an acceptable "Phase 2", or how the goals of "Phase 2" would be accomplished? It seems like he took the easiest of easy paths - embracing the popular invasion of Afghanistan, issuing a nebulous caution about what might happen after a successful invasion, and leaving himself plenty of room to impugn others for making "the wrong decisions" if they didn't achieve the impossible - a quick, easy exit that left a stable, reasonably progressive, pro-western government firmly in control of the nation.

Buchanan does correctly identify the costs of the Brooks-endorsed approach of escalation and counter-insurgency,
If Obama meets some or all of McChrystal’s request, America will stave off defeat in the short term. But the cost will be hundreds and perhaps thousands more U.S. dead, tens of billions more sunk, growing divisions in our country and more innocent Afghan victims. And the surge may simply push a U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover a few years off into the future.
But sometimes Buchanan's message gets muddied by his dislike for President Obama:
This assumes that Afghanistan is unwinnable, that America does not have the perseverance or will to send the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for the decade needed to crush the Taliban and create a government and army able to stand on their own when we depart.

If, however, Obama comes to believe the cost of “victory” in blood, money and years is not worth it, or the American people, already against the war and adding more troops, will not sustain it, or the war is unwinnable, then we need to look defeat in the face.
In other words, even if we go full-out, put tens our hundreds of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, and do everything McChrystal wants, taking as long as it takes to crush the Taliban and establish a stable Afghan government, it will be Obama's fault. Buchanan offers Obama only one alternative: be weak, withdraw, and jeopardize the security of the nation, and perhaps collapse the U.S. "empire". Seriously:
Russia’s withdrawal of 1988-89 led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. What would a U.S. withdrawal do to the American Empire?
Despite his full support for the decision to get us into this war, and despite seven years of failed war policy under Bush, if Obama can't turn this thing around and quickly and easily "crush the Taliban and create a government and army able to stand on their own when we depart", he's to be personally faulted for whatever happens - and yes, he's to be faulted even if he achieves that goal but with "hundreds and perhaps thousands more U.S. dead, tens of billions more sunk, growing divisions in our country and more innocent Afghan victims". Buchanan's thesis would be more compelling if he were willing to admit that he has never had a coherent notion of how achieve what he now describes as the only acceptable victory, let alone achieve that without a greater investment of blood and money, or anything that might be described as "nation building". So we're left with this:
For America, loss of Afghanistan would poison U.S. politics as did the loss of China and of Vietnam. It would discredit nation-building for decades and ring down the curtain on Wilsonian interventionism for a generation. And it could bring about the defeat of Barack Obama as the liberal who lost the war al-Qaida began on 9-11.
Is it just me, or does that sound like an outcome Buchanan would applaud?

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