The Trouble with 'Modest Expectations'

I’m very, very worried about where the conversation is going on Afghanistan. Andrew Sullivan is characterizing Christian Brose as a voice of the neoconservative right for the following:

What I heard again and again is that we may have to settle for a counterterrorism-focused mission, but that should be an unfortunate option of last resort, not our going-in policy. Furthermore, we should not allow resources to determine strategy, as this study suggests, which was one interpretation I heard for the administration’s recent statements walking back U.S. goals: The economy’s bad, and we have to do what we can. This gets it backwards. We should determine the optimal outcome we are confident we can accomplish, and then pay for it. After all, we still have a GDP of, what, $12 trillion? If our conception of strategic success is achievable, let’s not hide behind tightening budgets.

If I recall correctly, this was, until very recently, a consensus view held by people on the center-left and the center-right, not a maximalist view embraced only by a right-wing fringe. And I’m pretty sure this remains a widely held view. The Obama Administration has made a miscalculation, albeit a minor one for now: the tentative thought, it seems, is that lowering expectations will help us deliver an acceptable outcome. I think the opposite is actually true. Expectations are already extremely low. No one expects Afghanistan to become Switzerland. To achieve some kind of decent outcome, we really do need to ramp up our engagement in Afghanistan, up to and including offering long-term security guarantees that can alleviate anxieties in India and Pakistan regarding a security vacuum. As Chris suggests, building some kind of broadly representative government is an important part of this process, not out of messianic zeal but rather out of a recognition that a government effective enough to police its borders — and you need to do that if you want to stamp out terrorist training camps — has to be seen as basically legitimate.

Right now, we’re not helping matters. Steve Coll has explained how an overreliance on air strikes in particular and a failure to provide population security has undermined support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and for Karzai’s government.

Apart from the security issue, the first big push against this center of gravity will be the presidential election to be held later this year. The international community is poised to invest several hundred million dollars to stage this election in what will be, at best, difficult security conditions. The idea is to invest either a reƫlected Karzai or an opposition candidate with legitimacy, so that as Afghan security forces such as the Afghan National Army are built up, they will be linked to a viable national leadership.

What is the gravest threat? As Coll explains, it is that the Taliban will be able to change the composition of the electorate enough to fatally undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government. To avoid this scenario, we need to ramp up efforts to secure Afghanistan’s civilian population — which is to say, now is exactly the wrong time to lower expectations.

Think about it: if we try and succeed, we’ve shifted Afghanistan to a new, more stable equilibrium that will make it more likely that the country will help improve the strategic landscape in South Asia. If we try and fail, we can downshift to using space-based lasers to zap “Terrorist Training Camps” — which will be visible from space, because they will be centered around enormous concrete “T“s. Actually, no, they won’t be — zapping terrorist training camps will require a great deal of intelligence work, which will require a significant presence on the ground and supply lines, a serious problem at the moment. Which is to say, even the lightweight, Rumsfeldian approach that some are proposing would be pretty costly. By not investing now in a more favorable political environment, we are raising the longer term costs of engagement.

Senator Lieberman gave an excellent, sober speech&& on Afghanistan that offers measured praise for President Obama’s approach thus far. The core of the speech is that a military surge isn’t enough — Afghanistan also requires a civilian surge, which he outlines. To launch a civilian surge, we actually need to create a sense of urgency about the situation, which is to say we need to raise expectations for what we can achieve in the medium term.

I learned a lot from from Frederick Kagan’s NR survey, which I strongly recommend. When Andrew calls Afghanistan an ungovernable wasteland, I have to say, I don’t fully get it. Even the Soviets, for all their brutality and incompetence, came very close to making a deal with Massoud in the latter days of their occupation. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was not inevitable — that’s why they made a movie about Charlie Wilson’s War. And we happen to be in a far more favorable position than the Soviets for any number of reasons, not least that a majority, albeit a dwindling majority, of Afghans supports our presence.

This really, really isn’t a left-right issue. I don’t agree with Robert Kagan on everything. For one thing, I come down differently on the tradeoffs involved in sharply increasing military spending. But I think he’s on the side of the angels here, as he was on changing our political-military strategy in Iraq.