Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lowering the Bar in Afghanistan

This week NATO has been holding a high-profile summit in Chicago. Usually, NATO meetings don't get a lot of attention in the US press, in part because they're often in Europe and in part because they often talk about things like interoperability and peacekeeping protocols in the Balkans that Americans don't care much about. For most Americans, NATO is just background noise most of the time.

But because the Afghan war is a NATO affair, and because this is an election year in which Americans are looking to see if Obama fulfills his promises with regards to that war, this year's summit suddenly looks important. Chicago is, of course, always a great place for protesters (1968, anyone?), which only adds to the drama.

All NATO countries agree that they need to "end" the war, within a reasonably short time frame - specifically, by 2014. So they have a plan to accomplish that goal - a plan largely driven (as usual) by the various members' domestic political and economic situations rather than the war itself. That domestic politics are driving foreign policy should surprise nobody - they almost always do.

But this particular plan, despite the high-minded rhetoric, isn't a plan to end the war at all. It's a plan to try to arrange conditions under which NATO countries can leave with a minimum of embarrassment. At the end of 2013, the conflict itself won't be over and the fighting will still be going on - we just won't be doing the fighting anymore.

Ending the war means ending the conflict - which at root means taking away either the motivation or the capability of the various anti-Karzai government forces to continue to fight. Motivation can only be addressed by reaching a settlement acceptable to all of the factions within Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the various warlords and drug lords populating the countryside. Whether a power-sharing arrangement exists (even in theory) that could satisfy all of those parties simultaneously is an open question, but the fact that there has been very little serious effort to pursue one - combined with the fairly extreme demands of some parts of the Taliban - suggests that this road is blocked. So much, then, for resolving the conflict by negotiated settlement.

The only other choice is to take away the capabilities of the anti-Karzai forces. But this, too, is a strategy with a poor track record. The US and its NATO allies have been there in force for 10 years - recently, with a "surge" of extra forces. Despite concerted and significant efforts, there has been little progress in ending the war by beating the other side(s) into submission. The Soviets, with much less regard for human life than we have, tried for 10 years to do the same in the 1980s and failed. Military force can probably prevent a Taliban victory, but it cannot take away the Taliban's ability to continue to fight.

So what is the goal of this new plan? To have Afghan government forces capable of continuing the fight on their own by the end of 2013. I haven't seen the word used yet, but this feels an awful lot like "Vietnamization" redux. We've acknowledged that the war is essentially stalemated - neither side can escalate to victory at an acceptable cost. But the stalemate doesn't hurt either side enough to want to make painful compromises - either that, or some (or all) sides don't believe negotiations would produce a solution.

Either way, the Obama administration is in as untenable a position as the Nixon administration was in 1972. The American public wants out - not to the point that hundreds of thousands have marched on Washington yet, but the political and fiscal constraints are significant. Continuing the war promises no hope of changing anything for the next 10 years. But there's no way in the near term (or even the medium term) to produce an outcome significantly different from the status quo.

So the only rational strategy is cut your losses and leave, papering over the departure with words about "peace with honor" or "a plan to responsibly wind down the war". If Obama wins a second term, he may face a Saigon 1975 moment if the Taliban overrun Kabul and reassert control over the center of the country. Or that point may come later - if at all. The country may just limp along through another 10 or 20 years of internecine civil war, while continuing to serve as a base for drug lords and potential terrorists.

I don't have much criticism for what NATO is trying to do right now - they're in a difficult (if not impossible) solution. As much as we wanted to believe in 2001 that we could remake Afghanistan so that it never again be a haven for terrorists, that may be beyond our reach - a desperate hope generated from the grief and shock of 9/11. What we have gotten instead is yet another lesson in the limits of power.

Just don't call it "ending the war" or "conflict resolution". If we're honest, we'll call it what it is - leaving.

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