Do we define national security by absolute need and best practice, or do we define it as a function of political context? Is the conflict in Afghanistan (and the sticky situation in Pakistan) a matter of national security, or is it a war of choice based on stubborn ideals and historical ignorance? As President Obama comes to the end of an abbreviated review of the 18 months since the Afghan Surge, these should be questions at the top of his mind.
For a nation that spent two decades avoiding conflicts under the aegis of “It could be another Viet Nam”, with Afghanistan the United States was quick to jump feet first into “another Viet Nam”. The conflict is expensive, bloody, logistically difficult, reliant on a corrupt local government, unpopular with the locals, and geopolitically risky. The delicate balance crafted by David Petraeus in Afghanistan has not (and cannot) limit the collateral damage done in Pakistan. The wars we might win or avoid via a succesful action in Afghanistan, pale in comparison to the wars we can unintentionally start involving Pakistan. Foreign policy is a high wire act at the best of times; the addition of military action, however, makes it a one-legged high wire act.
In the aftermath of moderate success on the ground in Afghanistan, in the afterglow of Geronimo-E KIA, in the context of budget balancing that already includes ending heating oil subsidies here at home, what should be our next course of action?
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?-William Shakespeare
We know that President Obama will withdraw troops from that region this year; we know that he will pull out all of the combat troops by 2014. On the subject of troop deployments, both build-up and draw-down, the President has been rigorous in adhering to deadlines. It is the rate of withdrawal which we must now decide; to know how many, how fast, is to have a good understanding of why we stay, and what is yet to accomplish.
To the left of the President; the anti-war movement demands a complete and immediate withdrawal. To his right, Mr. Obama faces Congressional Republicans willing to concede some domestic points in order to keep the war going. The military-industrial lobby represents a powerful force affecting members of Congress from both parties. The alpha personalities of the Pentagon want to continue chasing the dream of “absolute victory”; the more sober planners want to ensure that gains traded for the blood of servicemen are not easily conceded.
Gains have indeed been made, by both the intelligence and drone driven campaign favored by Vice President Biden, and the surge strategy favored by outgoing Secretary Gates. Al-Qaeda has been degraded in that part of the world:
Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.-Landler and Cooper
But real questions remain as to the mindset of military planners; what would we have done had George W. Bush not had the uncharacteristic burst of sense that led to his appointment of Robert Gates? Mr. Gates’ assessment of the dominant feelings among our community of hawks remains relevant to this day:
“When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars,” Mr. Gates said. “And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities.”
The mindset we must get past is the notion that troops on the ground are the only good avenue to national security. The complete picture must be assessed in making the decision to stay or go. The brisk withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan can yield budget relief yes, but it can also provide the resource needed to take up an ever more brisk action against terrorism on other fronts. Everything from espionage and special operations, to humanitarian relief and economic development can serve the goal of fighting terror. The sooner that reality is embraced, the sooner our Af-Pak strategy can mature.
Troops should not be withdrawn at a pace that compromises the gains made in Afghanistan’s south; packets of withdrawals, followed by periods of observation, should serve to ensure gains are not lost. The President should withdraw the first 10,000 troops this summer, with 10,000 more scheduled to leave later in the fall after another stability review. The process can be repeated again, given adequate stability and improvements in Afghan forces, until all 100,000 are home. Such a staged withdrawal, under the best cast scenario, could see all of our troops home from the region by Christmas of 2013.
The United States must figure out its place in 21st Century diplomacy. The notion is easier written than done; isolationism (as expressed by our desire to bring ’em home, and our general dislike of foreign aid) seems to be the popular sentiment of the day, but Americans still care about our influence in the world at large. Too often, however, we think only of the positives our involvement brings to the table; negative consequences that aren’t acknowledged are never properly considered. Afghanistan and Pakistan are geopolitical linchpins; a nascent Russia, thriving China, and booming India sit to their east. The region also covers the southern approach to the Persian Gulf. An explosion of rivalry and regional ambition, combined with the nuclear arsenals of the major players, is decidedly not in the interests of the United States.
How we choose to end our direct involvement will play a major role in the future of this region. But end it we must; we are gifted with the most professional and capable military in the world, but they are only human. Stray bullets and collateral damage are part and parcel of military action, but are primal and personal to the families who suffer the wounds. The sooner we can leave the region, without leaving friends unprepared for our departure, the better for us all.
The Rational Middle is listening…