I Think I Was Wrong About Afghanistan

I was talking to Graeme, a colleague who is also one of my best friends, about Afghanistan — he was embedded with Canadian forces battling the Taliban, and he came away extremely impressed. Because Canada has a tiny military, it has a bizarrely unspecialized military.* MPs are doing the work of infantrymen, to name one small example, and they are incredibly effective killers of insurgents. Unfortunately, they simply can’t expand their numbers. The Canadian effort in Afghanistan has stretched their forces very thin. So assuming we are going to ignore the broader strategic context and focus solely on the fight within Afghanistan’s borders, it is true, as Obama has argued, that more US troops would make a real difference.

At the same time, the insurgency is fueled by Pakistan’s fundamental strategic anxiety — a fear of being squeezed on both flanks by India, as Robert D. Kaplan explains in an Atlantic Dispatch.

The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India, and allowed Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif. It has kept alive the possibility of inviting India to help train the new Afghan army, and to help in dam construction in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar, abutting Pakistan. All this has driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.

This is not say that fear is justified, but it is real and it is shaping the conflict. And so Kaplan emphasizes the central importance of active diplomacy designed to assuage Pakistani fears and get them on-side.

In the midst of all this, both Bush and Barack Obama talk simplistically about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. The India-Pakistan rivalry is just one of several political problems in the region that negate the benefit of more troops.

Kaplan ends on a really intriguing note.

The lesson: To get bin Laden, we need a coherent regional policy of development that draws all three countries into an organic embrace. A manhunt alone will fail. A policy of nation-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan will, counterintuitively, lead to a successful manhunt.

This actually sounds like something Obama would instinctively get. But he is framing his Afghanistan policy as part of an argument about Iraq. Still, one senses that he would get the non-military dimension of the conflict. My sense is that McCain would too, judging by the regional experts he’s surrounded himself with.

The Pakistani security community sees the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area far less simplistically than we do. It knows many Taliban fight without a particular worldview; they are merely ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who feel left out of the power structure in Kabul.

Here I’m picturing Yosemite Sam.

The Pakistanis also know elements loosely aligned with Karzai, such as former mujahideen commanders Din Mohammed and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who do in fact have a clear anti-American, al-Qaeda-sympathetic worldview. Pakistan is far more threatened by Talibanization than the U.S. is, but victory will require deft diplomacy, including alliances with some Taliban elements against others.

There is a growing sense in neocon circles that Karzai has to go. I wonder about who the likely alternatives are — I’ll do some digging.