Afghanistan is an Endurance Test Says NY Times OpEd

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  1. Endurance Test

    Published: October 19, 2009

    NEW YORK — When it comes to Afghanistan, hawks back Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 or more troops while doves try to parse the distinctions between the Taliban and Al Qaeda to justify rejecting his view and eventually heading for the exit. Right?

    No, wrong. I’m a hawk on Afghanistan but for that reason I’m skeptical of a major troop surge because it might bolster the view that there’s a quick fix for a country that’s the fifth poorest in the world, enjoys life expectancy of 44, and has been lacerated by three decades of war. In Afghanistan, 30 years of fighting now demand 30 years of partnership from the United States.

    The troop numbers game, in which President Obama looks wobbly, is in fact a distraction. Numbers matter less than endurance, details less than overall design. A word that needs to pass Obama’s lips soon is just that: “endurance.” Afghanistan, as he has said and must not unsay, is the “necessary war.”

    A U.S. official now serving in southern Helmand Province told me: “A big bang will weaken our endurance ability. People will say, O.K., with 40,000 more troops things should change overnight. We need to sustain at the lowest level that gets the partnering done.”

    Before explaining what should comprise this partnership, it’s important to dispel some myths. Much is being made of how the Afghan war will soon be the longest in American history. But the United States took a major detour called Iraq. It still has almost twice as many troops in Iraq as Afghanistan.

    In the south of the country — the critical nexus of the Kandahar-born Taliban, narco-trafficking and corrupt governance — America’s war is only months old, having begun with the Marines’ summer arrival in Helmand.

    It took years in Iraq’s Anbar Province for the U.S. to work out which sheikhs were amenable — or could become so with blandishments — and so engineer the Sunni awakening. The work on a Pashtun awakening has just begun.

    A second important clarification is that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have not become distinct because that would be politically welcome to the blossoming just-pick-off-the-terrorists school in Washington.

    Mullah Muhammad Omar has not suddenly awoken to Osama bin Laden’s perfidy. There are plenty of bad Taliban; changing hats in Waziristan was never a big deal.

    The truth is that the “Af-Pak” theater is comprised not of two countries but three: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pashtunistan. In the latter, which straddles the non-Af-Pak border that is the 1,610-mile Durand line (British colonialists were ever adept at drawing conflict-perpetuating lines on maps), Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives mingle.

    This does not mean that there are no “small T” Taliban-for-hire who can be co-opted, but does mean that “capital T” Taliban remain a major strategic threat to the United States.

    A third clarification is that you can’t just take to the air, lighten the allied “footprint” and pick off terrorists. Afghan bases are needed for drones to operate. The human intelligence gathered at or near the border is critical to identifying targets of value. The fight for Pashtunistan has to be won on the ground: That’s where counter-insurgency happens.

    If the United States steps back — or is seen to be stepping back (a perception fostered by each day of Obamivocation) — NATO will fold. So will Pakistan. That would be a disaster for Western security. America walked away from Afghanistan at the fall of the Soviet Empire with catastrophic results: After the expenditure of so much blood and treasure the retreat-and-return cycle has to end.

    But, as the lucid McChrystal has said, the situation has been “deteriorating” and failure is possible. So what to do?

    Yes, the United States needs a credible partner in the Afghan government and has not had one. President Hamid Karzai — assuming he remains in office — must be presented with certain non-negotiable demands: better governors; officials not beholden to Narcoshire; a transparent outreach program to “small T” Taliban; strong cooperation in fast-forwarding the Afghan Army and police.

    “We have to tell Karzai, here’s a contract and either your signature is on it or your brains will be,” a British general told me. I’d say that’s about the right tone.

    But as McChrystal has been urging, U.S. strategy also has to be rethought independent of Afghan government actions. The essence must be economy of force for maximized effect. It’s impossible — and foolish — to try to control the whole country or chase Taliban into caves. Rather, focus on model districts in contested areas of Pashtunistan. Give mud-hut Afghans something to believe in — not least efficient courts, motivated police and easy credit.

    President Obama is playing a wait-for-Karzai-to-shape-up game. I don’t buy it because it hangs McChrystal out to dry. As the general has said, “Time does matter” for “a favorable outcome.” Waiting is bad.

    Most Afghans still support the American presence. A swift commitment to endurance, with minimum additional troops required to convey that message, is needed from Obama.

    More than a specific number of troops, what McChrystal has pleaded for is “patience, discipline, resolve and time.” Do you hear him, Mr. President?
  2. Well, NYTimes getting it--with a few quibbles here and there--pretty much right.

    At this point the oncoming winter might give a breathing spell. Unless things have changed in the last few years--anyone?--winter tends to slow down the Taliban attacks.
  3. Alas, it took an oped piece instead of their own blindered editors.
  4. The good news is that Cohen's been editor at the NYTimes in a couple of positions, Foreign editor I know for one, as one of their long time foreign desk writers--now Op-Eds (no small feat)--so he does carry some semblance of weight or at least a major voice there in that context.
  5. Good observation as usual Virgil.