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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Lost in the Debate on Afghanistan

The October 6, 2009 edition of Charlie Rose featured an interview with CBS reporter Lara Logan discussing the inputs to the strategic decisions facing the US regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While talking about the ongoing Washington parlor game about what number Obama, Congress and the Pentagon will eventually land on for any change in troop deployments, Logan made a very crucial point about a truth being totally lost in the current debate. Paraphrasing here, the point was essentially this:

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The counter-insurgency approach being used to support the addition of more troops states those troops will be used in conjunction with forces pulled from combat outposts back to more populated areas to ensure we protect civilians to win hearts and minds and improve economic stability.

Oooooookay. That's the key foundation of counter-insurgency tactics. The strategy that "worked so well in Iraq." Let's take that as truth. When you reduce or eliminate troops from the remote command outposts, ignoring all the rationalizations and mental and political justifications, what are you doing? You are surrendering territory. Now maybe that's what you do when fighting a counter-insurgency. But that's NOT what you do when fighting any traditional war. (Parenthetically, the argument being made here is not that we care about territory per se, but you CERTAINLY cannot cede territory to an enemy whose primary ingredients for mayhem are space and time in which to operate.)

Okay. So assume we focus on populated areas and reduce or eliminate troop deployments in desolate areas. Assume the populated areas turn around and provide economic stability. Let's even fantasize and assume we get an honest government as a partner (eventually) elected in a clean election.

Have we "won"?

We've just reverted to the situation in Afghanistan that existed in the late 1990s and early 2000s that allowed Al Qaeda to set up training camps in remote, uncontrolled areas and eventually launch terrorist attacks on targets around the world.
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The goals set out by the Bush Administration for the war in Afghanistan and any variation of goals stated since then by Bush or Obama have focused on eliminating any capability by terrorists to operate with impunity from remote, uncontrolled regions of places like Afghanistan.

The status quo strategy and troop levels have allowed vast areas of Afghanistan to return to Taliban control while destabilizing tribal areas of Pakistan as well. Pulling out completely will obviously create a vacuum that will likely lead to a complete meltdown in Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan (which already has nukes). Ramping up troops requires a human and financial commitment the US possibly cannot afford. Reverting to a stronger counter-insurgency based strategy might stabilize cities but surrender most of the country to the fundamentalist terrorists that initiated the entire struggle nearly a decade ago.

Does anyone have any other ideas? It appears we may be close to exhausting all possible remaining mistakes regarding this war.