War Stories

Caution! Quagmire Ahead!

The United States can’t win in Afghanistan unless its new president makes major reforms, and quickly.

Afghan women attend a training program to learn how to vote

The ballots haven’t all yet been counted in Afghanistan’s election, but the interim reports —of intimidation, low turnout, continued violence, and widespread fraud—bode poorly for the country and our war there.

The strategic goal of a counterinsurgency war is to build support for the central government. Our forces provide security to the people. As a result, the regime can supply basic services. As a result, the insurgents lose their base of popular support.

But if the people regard the central government as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign has little to go on, no matter how brilliant the commanders or clever their strategy.

Not to overdraw the parallels, but the basic problem with the war in Vietnam was always the lack of public support for the Saigon regime. (Long after the war, Col. Harry Summers, one of the U.S. commanders, told North Vietnamese Army Col. Nguyen Don Tu, * “You know, you never won a single battle,” to which Tu replied, “That may be so, but it’s also irrelevant.”)

Doom in Afghanistan is not yet inevitable. As one Obama administration official told me, “At a local level, average Afghans didn’t expect a fair and free election. But they do expect that, whichever crook wins, he does a better job of providing services.”

In order to do that, the Afghan president—whether it’s a re-elected Hamid Karzai or one of his challengers—will need enormous amounts of aid from foreign governments, since he lacks the money and the specialists to do it on his own. However, it’s clear that no governments are going to open their own thinned-out wallets unless they’re sure the aid won’t go to waste. This means Karzai or his successor will have to crack down on corruption and appoint a set of new (and technically competent) ministers and governors.

And if the election turns out to be as close—and contested—as the early returns suggest, the new president will probably also have to offer a very high position to the runner-up, perhaps even form a unity government with him. If Karzai wins, the runner-up is likely to be the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. There is another way to express this: If Karzai the Pashtun wins, the runner-up is likely to be Abdullah the Tajik.(Abdullah is half-Tajik but is considered the Tajik candidate.) In other words, if Karzai doesn’t give Abdullah something big (or, should Abdullah win, if he doesn’t give Karzai something big), the election could trigger an ethno-geographic conflict (Pashtuns live mainly in the south, Tajiks in the north), on top of the many layers of conflict that already keep Afghanistan from functioning as a coherent nation-state. This is one danger of holding a national election in a state that lacks a national consciousness or a civil society: The vote tends merely to politicize, and thus harden, longstanding social divisions. This is what happened in Iraq’s first post-Saddam election.

All of these conditions—sharing power, cleaning out corruption, etc.—are difficult to meet. Karzai has formed coalitions with regional warlords and drug-traffickers because Afghanistan is a concatenation of regions and tribes run by warlords and drug-traffickers, and it’s easier to manipulate the existing power bases than to push through drastic and perhaps-futile reforms. But if these conditions are not met, the foreign aid won’t pour forth, and thus the essential foundation of a successful counterinsurgency campaign—a central government that the people have some reason to support—won’t be in place.

The good news is that President Barack Obama seems to understand this. Last March, when he announced his decision to deploy 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he emphasized, “We will not blindly stay the course” and, “We will not, and cannot, provide a blank check.” He also said that he and his advisers would formulate “benchmarks” and “metrics” by which success or failure would be gauged and on which continued U.S. commitment or withdrawal would depend.

In another intriguing, and encouraging, note, Peter Baker recently reported in the New York Times that Obama met privately in June with a group of historians, including Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s critical biographer, to discuss the parallels between Afghanistan and earlier military ventures. Baker quoted participants as saying that Obama clearly understood the risk of the quagmire and the toll it could take on the remainder of his presidency.

Then again, understanding a situation doesn’t necessarily lead to making wise choices or even knowing for certain just what the wise choices are. The administration has still not decided what those “benchmarks” of success and failure should be. In an especially troubling moment, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was asked by a reporter to define success and replied, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

Those 17,000 extra troops that Obama approved in the spring represented a middle course between his advisers’ conflicting options. All of these advisers agreed that some reinforcements were needed, if just to shore up Afghan security before and during the August election; and 17,000 was the number of troops available, given the start of the drawdown from Iraq. Once the election is decided, Obama will face another decision over what to do next.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly concluded that, in the face of growing Taliban resistance, still more troops are needed as quickly as possible. Yet Obama’s first round of reinforcements have just barely settled, and an additional 4,000 troops—the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which were sent not to fight the Taliban directly but simply to train the Afghan army—aren’t scheduled to arrive until next month.

Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, warned a group of his fellow generals in a meeting last June—around the same time that Obama himself was meeting with Caro and the other historians—not to push the president into escalation. He’d given them all the troops they wanted in the first round of decision-making: If the generals came back with a request for more, they might face, as Jones put it, a “whiskey-tango-foxtrot” situation. (That is, Obama might react by thinking, to employ another euphemism, “WTF?!” and to view the recommendation, and all subsequent advice from the military, as suspect.)

Obama has committed the United States to some form of involvement in Afghanistan—he’s called it a “necessary war,” after all—he hasn’t quite yet boxed himself in to drastic or rapid escalation. His next move will, and should, depend on what the next Afghan president does.

Correction, Aug. 28, 2009: The article originally stated that Col. Harry Summers talked with North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. (Return to the corrected sentence.)