Monday, October 12, 2009

Afghanistan: Eight is Enough

Eric Dondero decries the "surrender" of Kamdesh to the Taliban and accuses libertarians of cheering on said "surrender" (and, implicitly, the deaths of eight US troops in a firefight at an exposed outpost there).

Steve Newton responds with some sound military analysis of the situation.

My thoughts:

In terms of both legitimacy and plain common sense, the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 should have had a very limited objective -- to decapitate al Qaeda by eliminating its leadership and command/control assets in that country. Adding a "nation-building" objective queered the plan from the very start (I've been saying this for oh, about eight years, btw).

The six weeks that the US forces spend mucking around in the lowlands -- defeating the Taliban and installing a puppet regime as a precursor to the "nation-building" exercise -- before addressing Tora Bora gave Osama bin Laden and Co. ample time to pack their trash and depart for Pakistan in an orderly manner, leaving the al Qaeda threat largely intact. While it would be a stretch to blame every subsequent al Qaeda attack (London, Madrid, Turkey, Indonesia) on the US failure to focus on mission, that failure no doubt contributed to al Qaeda's ability to plan and carry out those attacks.

To put a finer point on it, the US failed in its legitimate/common sense objective in Afghanistan right off the bat. This was not due to any deficiency in its armed forces, which achieved their assigned tactical objectives in good order, but rather to a refusal on the part of the National Command Authority, i.e. the president and his advisors, to live in the real world.

The US has now occupied Afghanistan for 8 years, and fully 7 1/2 of those years have been spent dribbling American blood into the ground and throwing American treasure at a failed pursuit of neoconservative fantasy objectives (and a very, very successful pursuit of "transfer money from American taxpayer pockets to 'defense' contractor bank accounts" objectives).

The problem with Afghanistan, from a US military perspective, is that it is not Japan or Germany circa the mid-20th century. It is not a state by any reasonable definition of the word.

Germany and Japan both became modern nation-states by the late 19th century, and by the 20th century the people living in those countries had been broken to the habit of looking to a central capital (Berlin or Tokyo) and to a central government (Reichstag, Diet), to a chief executive (emperor, fuhrer, whatever) as the source of political authority. Capture the capital, take over the government, receive the surrender of the leader, and the people would bow to whatever new regime was imposed.

Afghanistan is not like that. It's not a state. Hell, it's a stretch to call it a country. It's central Asia's political insane asylum, a crazy quilt of tribal and religious alliances and a patchwork of tiny warlord fiefdoms that no neighbor in its right mind would attempt to annex and that no single domestic government can reasonably aspire to rule. At the height of its power, the Taliban had working arrangements with enough of the warlords to pass itself off as a "national government" ... as long as it only acted like one in form and never attempted to do so in substance.*

Prior to the US invasion, the Taliban controlled the government district in Kabul and a few scattered military bases, and the warlords ran the rest. Eight years after the US invasion, the US and the Karzai government control the government district in Kabul and a few scattered military bases, and the warlords run the rest. The only substantial difference is that while the Taliban faced only minor competition for the allegiance of the warlords (the Northern Alliance), the Taliban are serious competitors for those allegiances versus the Karzai regime and the occupation forces.

This is not a problem for which a military solution exists. There's no flag to capture. There's no capital to take. There's no conventional army to defeat. There's no leader who can break his sword over his knee, hand it to General Stanley McChrystal, and bring hostilities to an end. And the addition of four thousand, forty thousand, or four hundred thousand US troops to the mix won't change that. Pissing harder upwind is still pissing upwind. Time to stick it back in our pants and zip up, guys.

Afghanistan today looks pretty much like it did before the US forces arrived -- and that's pretty much the same way it's going to look after the US forces leave. The only relevant question, then, is how many more American lives are going to be lost, and how many more American dollars spent, before we face that reality?

A couple of irrelevant questions from the War Party whine corner:

Q: Shouldn't we fight the Islamo-fascists (sic) over there instead of over here?

A: That's a false dilemma. The Islamo-fascists (sic) who attacked the US on 9/11 were mostly Saudis, not Afghans. Al Qaeda kept its command/control assets in Afghanistan because it could. Now it doesn't, because it can't. After the US leaves, the local warlords, or even a resurgent Taliban, will probably be less likely to willingly host al Qaeda because they won't want the US to come back -- and if al Qaeda moves back in, with or without local cooperation, that can be easily handled with discrete strikes by special operations forces, just like it should have been in 2001.

Q: But won't pulling out of Afghanistan send "the wrong message" to the Islamo-fascists (sic) -- the message that the US is weak and can be militarily defeated?

A: Maybe, maybe not. Actually, I rather doubt it. As best I can tell, al Qaeda considers every additional day that the US spends bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan another day of victory for Islamo-fascism (sic). The US occupiers are their premier recruiters and fundraisers. Every dead kid's brother and every dead mother's son is a potential new recruit. Every warlord who wants the US off his opium-growing operation's ass is a potential donor.

But if withdrawing from Afghanistan does "embolden" al Qaeda, that's not for me to explain and make excuses for -- it's all on you. I'm not the one who cheered on the idea of hanging America's bare posterior over the Afghan cliff for eight years, you are. What? You didn't know that acting on the basis of fairy tale fantasies instead of hard facts of reality might have consequences? Sorry -- too late to undo what's been done. It's not too late, however, for you to extract your cranium from your rectum and start using it. The sooner the better.

* It occurs to me that this description of Afghanistan might inspire comparisons to Somalia and a critique of anarchism. Sounds like a good discussion -- bring it on!

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