Afghanistan: This Way to the Egress

Long inconclusive wars -- pseudo-wars and crypto-wars included -- have the effect of draining away just about everything. Manpower, equipment, money, political support, diplomatic capital, ethical standards, patience -- all start to run out. The one commodity sparingly used has been critical intelligence. That sad truth goes a long way toward explaining why we're in such a quandary. Years ago, Charlie Schultz of OMB and Brookings renown cogently remarked that, in his considerable experience of government, most wasteful of time in policy deliberations was a failure to enunciate clearly at the outset what the 'problem' was and what the purpose of actions being reviewed was. Afghanistan and Iraq are testaments to that assertion's accuracy.

Supposedly, the Obama administration has submitted Afghanistan to two systematic reviews. The latter three months long exercise is being promoted by Jonathon Alter as the most perfect, text book policy exercise ever conducted. Nice compliment for an author cultivating inside sources but wholly fallacious. Previous posts have demonstrated why in dismaying detail. Certainly, if such heights of governmental competence had been scaled, we -- and Washington in general -- would not be spending the Labor Day weekend trying, once again, to divine what's it all about. So let's begin with aims and ends.

One thing (and only one thing) is plain: we do not want the United States to be exposed to another 9/11 type operation organized, directed or executed by al-Qaeda using Afghanistan as any sort of base. Once we get beyond that commonsensical declaration, a thick fog sets in. President Obama is the main culprit since 1) he is the man in charge; 2) his public statements have obscured more than they have clarified. Above all, he casually mixes together al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That is fatal. For were the objective to eliminate Taliban in its several guises as a force in Afghanistan that controls any sizeable territory or enjoys any substantial measure of freedom of action, then we might as well sign the contract now for some firm to strike the 25th, 50th and 75th commemorative medallions for Operation Forevermore. That is one.

Next is the issue of how much tolerance we have for what measure of risk as may remain. That in essence is a two-fold question: how much of a Taliban residual presence can we live with? And what constitutes acceptable odds that links of any kind with al-Qaeda would be inconsequential? A conception of the future situation that allows for perpetuation of the Taliban in some form or other (the precise terms being itself a valid, important matter) opens possibilities that do not exist in current thinking. A conception that acknowledges the possibility, however slight, of nominal contact between elements of future Taliban and future al-Qaeda (again, the modalities are important) widens the intellectual breakthrough. Then, we can visualize all sorts of political outcomes as tolerable. That is especially true so long as we retain the means to strike directly at any terrorist group's physical assets if they were to reappear. That is two.

Pakistan is the 'spanner' in the works -- as General Kayani might say. Do we conflate Afghanistan with Taliban/al-Qaeda infested areas of Pakistan? If so, it becomes harder to sketch an acceptable state of affairs in accordance with the terms outlined above. There we must take into account three additional sets of factors. First is the political jurisdictional demarcation line that does not coincide with the ethnic, tribal, philosophical and political facts on the ground. Two, it is crucial to ascertain whether the agenda of Taliban in Pakistan is identical to that of Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter's leadership under Mullah Omar is highly unlikely to let the concerns of their Pakistani brethren constrain them insofar as a truce/peace settlement with Kabul/Washington is concerned. But the same cannot be said for Pak-Taliban attitudes toward the residue of al-Qaeda holding on in the Hindu Kush borderlands. Third, what are the intentions and capabilities of the Pakistani authorities? They seem to be at war with some elements and in cahoots with other elements -- although I personally am dubious that anyone in the CIA, their off-the-book foreign legion of auxiliaries or Central Command can appraise this with any confidence. After all, Musharaf played them all for fools for six years. From the American perspective, the best we can hope for is that the Pakistanis, through a combination of guile and coercion, contrive to achieve a Taliban/al-Qaeda divorce that sends the latter party packing. At the present, the Pakistani Taliban appear to have raised their sights to target the Pakistani regime itself. Their violent campaign may make use of al-Qaeda assets. A blunting of that campaign, therefore, should result in a commensurate devaluation of their al-Qaeda ties and improve the odds on a divorce.

What can the United States contribute to an evolution of the Pakistani situation along these lines? The best help we can provide is a lowering of the American profile and presence. Whatever practical assist we may provide in hardware and electronic intelligence is more than offset by our serving as recruiting agent for the violent Islamist factions and our compromising the authority of the Pakistani regime. That is tough to swallow. But painful trade-offs are strewn the length of the path to any exit from the trap that is AfPak.

Two further questions of purpose must be addressed. Above all, do we intend to maintain a major military presence in Central Asia -- if so, why?

Are there Top Secret documents showing that the ancient Silk Road is destined to become the power corridor of 21st century Euroasia? We are investing billions in state of the art airbases in Afghanistan along with a network of army bases. We construct mammoth embassies of imperial dimensions. (We have done exactly the same in Iraq). So we expect to be there a long time. Some people in the foreign affairs establishment clearly see the United States exercising military dominion across an enormous swath of Islamic Asia for the indefinite future. Yet we have heard not a peep from our elected or appointed leaders as to what this investment is all about. We need to know what's on their minds so as to debate seriously Afghan/Pakistan options. For myself, I see no tangible interest justifying this ambitious military strategy - other than 'full spectrum' military dominance for dominance's sake.

Finally, there is the key issue of American tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Those traits are not in our national make-up. We like crisp wars with clear outcomes. We are not into 'managing' problems or 'coping' with complicated, awkward situations. Surely not exercises of the kind that extend over years. Quite the opposite. We are a 'can do,' 'pro-active' people. Reinventing our collective mindset may not be possible. Yet, unless we are prepared and able to change our ways, we are fated to bleed ourselves dry while failing in pursuit of the impossible dream.

As to Iraq, much of the above applies. We never had a legitimate, compelling mission. We still don't. Our leaders seem convinced that it is desirable and possible to turn Iraq into a deferential ally who will support us in tangible and intangible ways while we pursue other adventures in the Greater Middle East. This, too, is pie in the sky. Any Iraqi leadership that wants to survive will promote its own interests. Those do not include playing the role of an auxiliary to American might a la Egypt or Jordan. The latter need us for economic reasons and, to their minds anyway, to contain a domestic challenge from salafists. The Iraqis will not need us. They have oil, and will reach their own accommodation with radical Sunni fundamentalists or crush them. Washington insiders talk about 'partnering' with the Iraqi military to protect the country from Iran. That, too, is our vision of things -- not theirs. All the camaraderie Fort Leavenworth has to offer won't change that hard reality. Nor will innumerable sorties by Pentagon brass wearing out the red carpet in Baghdad. Time to egress the hall of mirrors.