Getting Nervous About Afghanistan

Fred Kaplan, writing at Slate: “It’s time to start getting nervous about Afghanistan.” He sums up the issues thus:

The problem of Afghanistan is the easiest—or at least the easiest to calculate—in the sense that it’s to some extent susceptible to military power. But, as Gates and Petraeus have said several times, it’s not entirely a military problem; there can be no “victory” in the standard meaning of the word. A good ending, if there is one, will involve a negotiated settlement in which “reconcilable” Taliban—those who joined the insurgency for nonideological reasons—are lured over to the Afghan government’s side.

Top U.S. officers, he writes, “are starting to aid local militias in the fight against the Taliban,” an approach that “has the merit of realism”, acknowledging as it does that  “Afghanistan is a tribal society; power is focused on the militias; securing the population, at this point, can be done only through them.” Kaplan, noting WaPo coverage, is rightfully cautious:

…we’re not going to win over any chieftains unless we can demonstrate that we might win. This is the main reason for a boost—nobody’s calling it a “surge”—in U.S. troop levels. We need some quick tactical victories against the Taliban. Air power can’t do it: Bombing kills too many civilians; and that turns the Afghan people against us, against the Afghan government, and toward the insurgents. So more ground forces are the only way.

There’s more, notably Kaplan’s observation of a typical COIN paradox: “More U.S. troops are needed to provide security to the Afghan people; but these troops may, at the same time, fuel the insurgency—which will require more troops, and on the cycle goes.”

All of this is pretty straightforward. Where I disagree with Kaplan is his suggestion that the way forward (the way to “short-circuit this cycle”, as he puts it) is to demonstrate a few quick and easy successes. The idea is to cast a positive light on NATO and Coalition forces and their efforts, which will hopefully generate a cascade of good will and positive progress. To do that effectively, though, would require some pretty robust information operations, and so far, it’s the Taliban who have that one down pat. I’m not sure how Kaplan’s recommendations would hold up under that sort of spotlight; a few quick and easy successes, absent the sustained attention that would keep them from being reversed or overturned, will just as easily fuel local cynicism.

That said, Kaplan did note the paradox of our involvement, and I’m being churlish; I offer no solutions.

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