The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc


Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…

2011 Asia Predictions (2): Middle East, South Asia, Russia


Russia to the World – Bite me!

 

For my 2011 East Asia predictions (predictions 1-3), try here.

Last year, I put up 2010 predictions for Asia and Korea. Last week, I evaluated those predictions. This week come my 2011 predictions. It’s a fun exercise, if only to see how bad you blow it 12 months from now…

4. The Middle East peace process will go nowhere.

Why: Ok, this is not a particularly challenging prediction. Yet, we can always hope, but my guess is our hopes will once again be dashed. There are no elections coming up which might open possible policy shifts, and none of the big players seem to be rethinking much. Indeed, everyone seems fairly comfortable with the status quo, the current mix of intransigence and inaction. Particularly the Israelis seem to be fairly comfortable with the drifting-toward-apartheid status quo. And Obama, like so many POTUS before him, seems burned out with trying to resolve this tangle. So I don’t see anything suggesting real movement by anybody. Indeed, I increasing think that the two-state solution is pretty much gone; as Pillar says, wth are the Israelis thinking? So the status quo is pretty much the future: stasis.

5. India will back off on Afghanistan to give some room for US success and less Pakistani paranoia.

Why: This prediction is a little gutsier. If India continues to intervene in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan, then Pakistan will never properly democratize, nation-build itself, or repress its Islamist-Taliban buddies, because they will remain a tool to use against India and to control Afghanistan after we leave. My sense is that there is growing recognition of this ‘AfPak’ logic. Increasingly it is clear that the Afghan war is irresolvable without some kind of Indo-Pakistan rapprochement. That is not likely and not my prediction, but I do increasingly see the Indians talking as if they are already a great power. If so, then Pakistan isn’t that important anymore. If India is just a regional power, then Pakistan is big trouble. But if India is a great power, then Pakistan is just a sideshow. So if India is growing up as a great power – they got Obama to support a UNSC seat for them last year – then Pakistan is the past. Far more important for India is the relationship with China and America, and Indian moves to encircle Pakistan in Afghanistan ultimately harm the US and aid China (by pushing Pakistan toward China) – exactly the opposite of its preferred outcome if it is a global power. Yes, India wants to reduce and humiliate Pakistan as it has Bangladesh, but I reckon the Indians increasingly see the costs of such pointless ideological satisfactions. India cannot retake Pakistan. Even without Pakistan’s nukes in the way, an Indian reabsorption would be colossal expensive and permanently delegitimize it as a great power. In short, global India has increasingly little to gain by provoking regional Pakistan. Even Kashmir isn’t really worth it: poverty, mountains, and fanatics – why bother? India has already won the Indo-Pak competition, as just about everyone knows. Pakistan is a paranoid faux-democracy riven by militarism, religious fanaticism, and terrorism. India is none of those things, so it can just savor Pakistan’s implosion and move on. Pakistan to India today is less like East Germany to West Germany, and more like Mexico to the US.

6. Russia will stay a Corrupt Mess, and Putin will genuinely reemerge.

Why: For several years now we have all been hoping that Putin might actually recede from the spotlight, that Medvedev might actually become a meaningful figure, that law might slowly push back corruption there, etc. All this was captured by the Obama administration expression ‘the reset.’ By 2011, it is time to admit this is over. The signal moment for me last year was the open farce of the Khodorkovsky trial – rather than the various gas tricks with Eastern Europe, stomping on local NGOs, or journalist murders (awful as all that is) – because ending ‘legal nihilism’ (ie, corruption) was Medvedev’s signal political promise. Well here was the big chance to show that with just a bit of movement on the biggest court case in Russia in a decade, one the world was watching. A little restraint might have convinced people that Medvedev wasn’t wholly a marionette of the old man. Instead, as Ioffe notes, Putin didn’t even both trying to cover up the sham. If I were an investor, I’d dump my rubles today. Putin just gave Wall Street (and the West) the finger. So I predict in 2011, that it will become widely acknowledged that Putin is still the chief, that he will be yet more public in preparation for reassuming the Russian presidency in 2012, that Russo-US cooperation will therefore slide, and that Russia’s political economy will stay a black market nightmare. To be sure, these aren’t exactly gutsy predictions, but it does seem to me that 2010 was an important year regarding the direction of the Putin-Medvedev tag-team, and the year’s events clearly downgraded the latter for all the world to see. We now know that Medvedev is a joke. So in 2011, given the looming presidential election and Putin’s consequent need to reassert himself for it, Medvedev will fade to black.

Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’


afghan-soldiers-2

Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.

This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…

But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:

The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.

Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.

Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:

1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.

2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.

3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.

If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?

None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.

But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.

Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…

Why Korea is going (back) to Afghanistan, or how Middle Powers get Muscled by their Patrons


_46638147_soldier_getty

So Korea will head back to Afghanistan this summer. I spoke on this today in my radio slot on Busan’s English language station. The transcript is below.

The obvious question is why. The provincial reconstruction team Korea will send is pretty small. They won’t be able to do much. They won’t be in a particularly dangerous part of the country. And the Korean public is awfully skeptical.

So why go? The short answer is because the US wants Korea to go; they are part of the ally round-up of the Obama administration to reach McChrystal’s 40,000 soldier figure for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Korea’s geopolitics are awful. It is surrounded by 3 larger powers with whom it has terrible relations, plus bizarro North Korea. So SK is terribly dependent on the US to help it maintain its autonomy in such a bad neighborhood. And the US has repeatedly (ab)used this asymmetric dependence to push Korea into things it doesn’t want to do.

It’s also a nice way for Korea to strut its stuff as an emerging global player – something Koreans desperately want to be.

But I don’t think Koreans are ready for the blowback that comes with participation in the GWoT. As Greenwald and Walt have both noted repeatedly, it is ridiculous to assume that if you kill Muslims in the ‘war,’ they won’t hit back – e.g., in the Christmas bombing attempt. Koreans have already been targeted in the GWoT. The more Korea gets sucked into this thing, the more they will be targeted.

Further, Korea is an increasingly Christian society. Islamic radicals have traditionally avoided Asian religions. They worry about ‘backward’ monotheisms (Christians and Jews haven’t ‘updated’ to Mohammed, the last and definitive prophet of the God of Abraham) and polytheistic irreligion (i.e., Hinduism). But the more metaphysical/non-theistic faiths of East Asia don’t really activate them. Look at Malaysia, whose large minority of Buddhists have never been targeted. But as Korea christianizes (due to heavy proselytization here), expect the al Qaeda types to start eyeing it, especially if its soldiers use force in Muslim countries.

__________________________________________________________________

TRANSCRIPT

BUSAN E-FM

MONDAY, 8 AM

January 11, 2010

Petra:

So in the last few weeks, the government has agreed to redeploy Korean forces to Afghanistan, but not very many. So why is this important?

REK:

You’re right that the numbers are small – less than 500 people – in what we call a provincial reconstruction team. But it is important for Korea for at least three big reasons – beyond the obvious costs and risks to personnel.

Petra:

And those reasons are what?

REK:

First, Korea has almost no record of overseas force deployments. The Republic did send a few peacekeepers to East Timor and Iraq, but these were very controversial. Under the left-leaning Kim and Roh administrations, the Korean government disagreed badly with the US over Middle East policy, and one way to show that displeasure was avoid overseas deployments

Petra:

So why is Korea going to Afghanistan now then?

REK:

The conservative Lee administration wants a more mature, or ‘global,’ profile for Korea. President Lee wants Koreans to become accustomed to thinking of themselves globally, and peacekeeping is a part of that role. If Korea is to cut a larger role on the global stage – a deeply held Korean political goal – then it must also carry more of the burden. For the same reason, Korea is expanding its foreign aid programming.

Petra:

Ok. So what are the other reasons Korea is going?

REK:

Sure. The second big reason is because the US is asking Korea to go. Before President Lee, the Korean government was distancing itself from the US. President Roh particularly liked to use his flirtation with China to tweak the Bush administration. President Bush was deeply unpopular in Korea, as was the Iraq war.

Petra:

So President Lee is trying to mend fences with America by sending us to Afghanistan?

REK:

Basically, yes. President Lee is staunchly pro-American in a way his predecessors were not. Unlike South Korea’s drift toward China earlier in the decade, President Lee is strongly committed to returning the US alliance to centrality in Korean foreign policy…

Petra:

And going to Afghanistan is way to show that.

REK:

Exactly.

Petra:

You said there was a third big issue stemming from this deployment.

REK:

Yes, as Korea’s global profile and global intervention accelerate, it will eventually become a target of those forces that resent globalization, global governance, and the United States.

Petra:

I don’t understand.

REK:

Sorry. If Korea joins world politics more explicitly, if it moves beyond simply East Asia – its regional home for decades – then eventually it will encounter the turbulence of big international relations issues, such as terrorism or piracy.

Petra:

That’s right. I have heard before about Korean aid workers killed in the Middle East.

REK:

And Koreans have been increasingly pulled into the problem of Somali piracy.

Petra:

So what does this mean for Korean foreign policy?

REK:

Well, on the one hand, it means that Korean is increasingly becoming a mature global player. Its foreign policy is no longer dominated solely by North Korea. This is a deep desire of the current Lee administration – to pull South Korea out of the local ‘ghetto’ of peninsular politics, where everything in Korean foreign policy is dominated by erratic Pyongyang. President Lee and most Koreans want Korea accepted globally – as a wealthy, prestigious, functional, responsible democracy.

Petra:

And going to Afghanistan shows that. I get it. But you sound like you see a downside.

REK:

Yes, there is. The more Korea gets pulled into the US-led war on terror, the more likely Koreans are to become targets too.

Petra:

That’s unfortunate. Why?

REK:

Well, for two reasons. One, Korea is a US ally. And al Qaeda and similar groups target not only Americans but close allies, like Great Britain, too. Second, Korea has a growing Christian population.

Petra:

Why is that important?

REK:

Because for al Qaeda, the war on terror is really a clash of civilizations or a religious conflict. Islamic radicals are, in their mind, defending the faith against aggressive, imperialistic Christians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Hindus.

Petra:

But Korea’s heritage is mostly Buddhist and Confucian.

REK:

That’s right. Which is why East Asia has generally been spared the effects of 9/11. Islamic radicalism is just not as worried about Asian religions. But as Korea’s Christian population expands, and as its role in the war on terror expands also, al Qaeda attacks on Koreans are more likely.

Petra:

Those are the costs of global profile for Korea?

REK:

Yup.

Petra:

Do you think it’s worth it?

REK:

I don’t know, and I worry sometimes that Koreans don’t know either. Koreans are so concerned to achieve global status, that they haven’t really thought too much about its costs. You know, it’s not so bad to be the Austrias or the Canadas of the world.

Petra:

Is that what Korea is in East Aisa?

REK:

Kind of. And it could be if you wanted it that way. I even wrote a paper once saying that Korea might consider trying to be like Finland, instead of Japan – small, rich, and neutral – with lots of good skiing.

Petra:

But that’s not really what Koreans want right now, is it? So off we go to Afghanistan.

REK:

Basically, yes. You have decided to be an American ally, and so you get pulled into stuff like this.

Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 1. Afghanistan


158px-Flag_of_Afghanistan_svg

Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.

This week I am putting up my thoughts on accepting a ‘defeat’ in the Greater Middle East (at least for a little while); cutting our losses; and a long-term exit from a region that is consuming US power at a remarkably frightening rate. My ‘rah-rah’ instincts are to stay and ‘win’ and my blogging to date has supported the GWoT pretty strongly, but increasingly the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam linger in my head. It’s hard not to see this debate like those of the Johnson administration in 1964-65. The risks of staying and draining US power, especially in the face of rising Asia, increasingly worry me. Perhaps living in Asia and seeing how wealthy they are all getting, while we run all over the ME, has instilled greater fear in me of US overstretch. The GWoT needs to end soon, or at least we need to find a far less expensive way to fight it.

The intellectual drivers of this rethink are all the good punditry that has emerged in the last 2 months of the Obama review. (This time has been an excellent public participatory debate on the republic’s foreign policy. Let’s hope this style recurs. It is downright revelatory and democratic compared to W.) Particularly influential on me have been Walt, Kaplan, and Greenwald. Walt’s constant and intelligent blogging at FP has really forced me to rethink how unlikely, unnecessary, and costly a counterinsurgency ‘victory’ would be, and the importance of husbanding US power for other concerns (Asia). Kaplan convinced me that we are helping others a lot more than ourselves. And Greenwald convinced me that my own thinking on US geopolitical problems too easily slides to the standard US ‘foreign policy community’ response of more force, more intervention, more effort. If all you read all day is stuff from think-tanks and policy institutes like Brookings, Rand, or the Council of Foreign Relations, you’d think the US should be the world’s first problem solver. But Walt is probably right that that is recipe for overstretch, and Greenwald is probably right that that puts a lot of blood on US hands.

So I am going wobbly on Afghanistan first:

Like Friedman and Kupchan, I am starting to think this is a bridge too far – at least right now. I am not so sure, but the costs of this thing seem pretty high, and likelihood of failure too, and it is not clear how much the US needs a victory in Afghanistan defined by a decade of nation-building (the McChrystal approach). Why my change of heart?

1. US finances are a mess, even worse than usual, and US unemployment just broke 10%. This constraint is worsening as the budget outlook worsens. It should condition ALL new foreign policy outlays, especially those involving the military, as wars usually out-cost expectations. A major counterinsurgency ramp-up may be the ‘imperial’ indulgence that pushes the US into a financial crisis. Think about the parallel of Johnson’s expensive Vietnam build-up and the costs it brought in the 70s.

2. The US partner in Afghanistan is really bad. Karzai is so obviously corrupt now. The stolen election may be the last straw. US troops are now in the bizarre position of tacitly protecting warlords, as well as the drug growers who supply opium in the US. How can we win if the government is a lost cause? Isn’t that oxymoronic?

3. The US Army is badly overstretched by any reasonable measure. Recruitment is problematic. Gear has worn down faster in hard conditions of Afghanistan (and Iraq) than expected. The Army and Marines need some pretty serious institutional downtime to rebuild capacities and absorb GWoT lessons.

4. International cooperation on Afghanistan is pathetic; this is a coalition of the unwilling. The Europeans are wholly disinterested. They just want to come home. Obama can’t get anything more from them than W got. America’s Asian allies (Japan, SK, Australia) are not enthusiastic at all. Korea will go, but they will be non-combat forces. Japan won’t go, and is even probably going to stop its Indian Ocean refueling operation. Australia won’t go either. Not even the UN can really function in Afghanistan now either after last week’s bombing. And Pakistan’s role is downright pernicious.

If this sounds like I am flip-flopping, that is somewhat correct. Try here for my argument 2 months ago in favor of the Afghan COIN. I am genuinely unsure of the right course – as is Obama apparently, so at least I am in good company.

Time for Indecision on Afghanistan


afghanistan-map

The growing pressure for a ‘big’ decision on Afghanistan is misguided. The neo-cons and other hawkish elements are raising the temperature on this unnecessarily by suggesting that Obama must go all in soon, or the Democrats will be responsible for losing another war. Slow down there, Tom Clancy. There is a case for muddling through also, not just leaving or going all in.

There is growing evidence that a big rush to judgment and commitment on Afghanistan is unnecessary. (Read Fred Kaplan’s last few columns.) I found this article by AJ Rossmiller most persuasive against the fallacy that Obama has to make One BIG Momentous Decision that will determine his whole first term. Rossmiller wisely suggests that there is actually no big need to ramp up huge forces there right now, with all the costs and commitments that come with a build-up. Muddling through is working pretty well.

It seems to me that the push to have one big decision is really a rhetorical strategy by Afghan surge supporters. By talking this way, they seek to create the view that if O doesn’t make a huge choice RIGHT NOW, all could be lost. This framing of the decision is designed to push him into the surge, by making it look like he is giving up if he doesn’t pile in. Better to lock in Obama on Afghanistan now, early, before he learns too much and starts to hedge.

The model for such a decision-making approach is Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, and LBJ on Vietnam after Pleiku. A new, unsure president gets pushed into a big war-making effort by a collection of advisors with deep stakes in the military-industrial approach to conflict. As a Salon blogger put it, LBJ probably should have listened to Norman Mailer (!) instead of Bundy or McNamara. I wouldn’t go that far, but the point is that these ‘strategic reviews’ recycle the usual suspects. Even better is Greenwald’s powerful column that the ‘foreign policy community’ as an industry has a vested interest in imperial overstretch and war as a tool of conflict resolution. I particularly like Greenwald’s identification that whenever you ring up Rand or the Kagans, the answer is more military action. Hah! Money quote:

As Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch notes:

“The ‘strategic review’ brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.”

The link he provides is to this list of think tank ’experts’ who worked on McChrystal’s review, including the standard group of America’s war-justifying theorists:  the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc.  What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war?  It’s what they do.  You wind them up and they spout theories to justify war.  That’s the function of America’s Foreign Policy Community.

The model for going ‘all in’ of course is the Bush surge in Iraq. But there was hardly a decision-making ‘process’ with W, understood as a careful weighing of options and competing views. You knew W would not leave, but double-down instead: Iraq was the signature issue of his presidency in by 2007; he was obsessed with machismo and mistook bulheadedness for toughness; and no arguments were going to dissuade Bush, because the ‘decider’ was a ‘gut player,’ not a listener. There was no real debate; W blew off the Iraq Study Group and rolled the dice. Nor do we know if it was the surge that helped stabilize Iraq. A lot suggests it was the change in strategy from warfighting to COIN, as well as the the shady and mundane pay-off of Sunni insurgents. In short, it may not have been Bush’s heroic insight into the war, but simply handing bags of $100 bills to Sunni gunmen that helped quiet Iraq.

Six weeks ago, I argued to give McChrystal a chance on COIN in Afghanistan. I am not arguing now for the offshore CT approach, but rather for a little more muddling through. I still think we should stay in Afghanistan with a heavier footprint than VP Biden would like. But my concern here is to avoid pushing Obama into one great, over-heated ‘ALL OR NOTHING!’ decision. Framing the decision that way basically blackmails him into making the choice those framing the debate this way want him to make, ie, the big build-up.

Give McChrystal a Chance in Afghanistan


In the last week, Steve Walt, George Will and Charles Hagel have all come out to say that Afghanistan is a losing effort and that we should get out or retrench in one way or the other.

Isn’t this jumping the gun a bit? Obama has only been in there 8 months, and McChrystal for less than 2. I know we all think it could become like Vietnam or the Red Army when they were in Afghanistan 25 years ago. But not necessarily. Presumably US planners can read history and learn from previous mistakes. Heavy and indiscriminate use of firepower was the big civil relations problems faced by both the US in Vietnam and the USSR in Afghanistan. But we seem to have learned not to do that (although the Russians haven’t – look at Chechnya). Predators and local airstrikes, for all their errors, are not like Arclight in South Vietnam or, worse, the Soviet scorched earth policy in Afghanistan.

It is true that large bureaucracies learn slowly, and the the US Army seems particularly insistent on fighting war in only one way. However, the Army did learn counterinsurgency after 4 years in Iraq, and it did, sort of, turn things around there.

I am also not so sure that if we leave AfPak, it wouldn’t cause so much trouble that we’d have to go back in again later. Walt is correct that the ‘safe haven for al Qaeda’ argument for staying in South Asia is weak, but it does hold some water, and there are other reasons for staying.

1. Without a US commitment, Afghanistan will melt-down, and that will increase the chances of the same thing happening in Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and a lot more people, conventional weapons, and jihadis.

2. Without the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence will almost certainly go back to its old tricks there. It will make trouble so that Pakistan can semi-control Afghanistan and gain greater ‘strategic depth’ against India. (This was the Pakistani strategy before 9/11.)

3. India will flip out if we cut out of South Asia. It will certainly feel less secure, and so be more likely to build more nukes, not compromise on Kashmir, and strike a much harder line on Pakistan and terrorism. Do we really want India to feel isolated and hence pressed to use military force next time they are targeted by terrorists with Pakistani connections? India is an emerging US ally, and if we leave South Asia just like that, we will lose them.

4. If we can get some kind of stable government in Afghanistan and more or less defeat/repress the Taliban, we might then be able to interrupt the huge flow of opium out Afghanistan. Even if you believe in light drug liberalization (I do), it is hard to be comfortable with legalizing opium, which is the base of heroin.

5. Just like in Vietnam, US credibility is at stake. The biggest problem we have in counterinsurgency is that the Afghan locals don’t think we’ll stay, so they won’t rat out the Taliban. If we bail, the Afghans will never trust us again, and we’ll have trouble convincing other similar populations (Muslim, tribalized) should we have to fight somewhere else (like Somalia or Yemen). So yes, we may have to give up later, but let’s at least give it a try before we burn our bridges so badly in South Asia. It will be a lot harder to fight there later if we give up now.

I realize that saying we have to fight for credibility can be a black hole. If you have to defend every domino to defend anyone of them, then you have to fight everywhere. That’s what happened in the Cold War and lead to Vietnam. But we are nowhere near that point in the GWoT. The Cold War pulled us all over the world, but the GWoT is mostly limited to the Middle East and South Asia. We have only just begun to divert resources to Afghanistan from Iraq. As the cost of the latter goes down and the former goes up, hopefully we won’t have to pay any new costs. Yes, I realize the GWoT has already been a budget-breaker, but our Afghanistan venture will likely be less expensive than Iraq. Our costs should begin to decline.

In short, there are costs to giving up in Afghanistan, and benefits if we win. In Vietnam, we learned after Tet, that the benefits of victory no longer outweighed the costs of the effort. In other words, by 1969 it was cheaper to lose in Vietnam. But we are not near that point in Afghanistan yet. Bush basically ignored the place as Iraq took over his presidency. Obama has only just begun the effort that should have taken place in 2002. So let’s give him and McChrystal a chance. Deployments and wars are not forever. If the costs balloon, and benefits recede and become ever more ethereal (as happened in Vietnam), we can always leave. This is not the end of the discussion. But for right now, let’s give Obama a chance, as we gave W his hail mary pass with the surge.