President Obama is expected to "announce" his "new" Afghanistan strategy Friday -- the traditional Washington day for burying things. But there aren't likely to be many surprises. The administration has been dribbling details out to the news media, and what has been foreshadowed includes: more troops, more civilians, narrower goals; a renewed concession, perhaps, that there is no military solution.
It is widely recognized that sending more people - whether soldiers or civilians - is very unlikely in itself to change anything fundamental, because the order of magnitude is wrong. The United States has not been, is not, and almost certainly never will be willing and able to commit the resources which would be necessary to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful "democracy" according to the present policy. The most that could be plausibly hoped for is that additional resources would help make a new policy work: a new policy based on a fundamental, political shift in US policy, including accommodation with the bulk of the political forces now backing Afghanistan's various insurgencies.
And therefore, it matters little in the big scheme of things how many new troops President Obama announces. If there is no real change in policy, new troops won't accomplish anything. If there is a real change in policy, any success will be due much more to the policy change than to the "troop surge" under the cover of which the policy change takes place.
What finally matters are the answers to four questions that are only now beginning to be asked.
1. Will the United States support political negotiations between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies?
If you’re interested in a “way forward” in Afghanistan that’s not built around killing a bunch of innocent people for no reason, then I strongly encourage you to read and absorb every word of Carlotta Gall’s report in Wednesday’s New York Times, “As U.S. Weighs Taliban Negotiations, Afghans Are Already Talking.”
Some key points, based on conversations with Afghan officials and Western diplomats in Kabul:
A progressive presidency is a terrible thing to waste. It only comes around once every so often. Wouldn't it be a shame if Americans' hopes for the Obama administration were squandered in Afghanistan?
Members of Congress who want the Obama administration to succeed won't do it any favors by keeping silent about the proposed military escalation in Afghanistan. The actions of the Obama Administration so far clearly indicate that they can move in response to pressure: both good pressure and bad pressure. If there is only bad pressure, it's more than likely that policy will move in a bad direction. In announcing an increase in U.S. troops before his Afghanistan review was complete, Obama partially acceded to pressure from the military. If we don't want the military to have carte blanche, there needs to be counterpressure.
Some Members of Congress are starting to speak up. Rep. Murtha recently said he's uncomfortable with Obama's decision to increase the number of troops in the country by 17,000 before a goal was clearly defined, AP reports. Sen. Nelson is calling for clear benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan, and said he may try to add benchmarks to the upcoming war supplemental bill this spring, CQ Today reports.
But these individual expressions of discomfort will likely not be enough to stop the slide towards greater and greater military escalation.
A key fact about the recent history of Iraq is absolutely critical to the nascent debate about Afghanistan: there was more to the Iraq "surge" than sending additional troops, so if folks are going to justify sending more troops to Afghanistan on the grounds that sending more troops "worked" in Iraq, we should be talking about the other elements of US policy in Iraq that changed after November 2006, not just about more troops.
Analysts say elements of the real policy changes that took place in Iraq -- changing the troops' mission from offense to defense, increasing support for indigenous forces, and stepping up diplomacy within the nation and among its neighbors -- could be very relevant for Afghanistan, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They say the mission of troops should shift from hunting insurgents to protecting civilians, and focus money on Afghan rather than US troops. "You can get 70 Afghan soldiers for the price of one American soldier deployed to Afghanistan," noted one analyst. Empowering local leaders may require political reforms -- such as allowing governors to be elected locally instead of appointed by Kabul, which would require reform of the Afghan Constitution.
In particular, regarding "stepping up diplomacy within the nation," the US made deals in Iraq with insurgent groups that led to a dramatic reduction in violence.
So if you want to "replicate the success of the surge in Iraq" in Afghanistan, it seems pretty clear that you are going to have to come to some arrangements with some armed groups that are currently considered "Taliban." If you're not talking to Taliban, you're not replicating the Iraq surge.
USA Today reports that Gen. McKiernan - top U.S. commander in Afghanistan - “has asked the Pentagon for more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen” to augment U.S. forces. McKiernan says U.S. troop levels of 55,000 to 60,000 in Afghanistan will be needed for “at least three or four more years.” He added: “If we put these additional forces in here, it’s going to be for the next few years. It’s not a temporary increase of combat strength.”
We should have a vigorous national debate before embarking on this course. Contrary to what one might think from a quick scan of the newspapers, there are knowledgeable voices questioning whether increasing the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan is in our interest, or is in the interest of the Afghan people.
Bestselling author and former longtime New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer argues the opposite in this five minute video:
Kinzer argues that sending more U.S. troops is likely to be counterproductive. It’s likely to produce more anger in Afghanistan, and more anger is likely to produce more recruits for the Taliban. A better alternative would surge diplomacy instead, reaching out to people who are now supporting the Taliban.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are very different forces, argues Kinzer. The Taliban has deep roots in Afghan society. Many of the warlords allied with the Taliban are not fanatic ideologues.