War Stories

Friend or Foe?

The worst thing about President Karzai’s brother’s CIA gig.

The New York Timeslead story today—that the CIA has been making regular payments to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother who is widely suspected of involvement in the drug trade—is even worse news than it sounds.

Under certain circumstances, such a report might be neither surprising nor unsettling; given the pervasiveness of the drug economy and its links to the Taliban, Karzai frère would certainly be in a position to provide very useful intelligence.

However, given that the Obama administration is formulating a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and given that such a strategy involves propping up the national government in the course of helping the population, the revelation is at best appalling and at worst a harbinger of doom.

The highest-ranking U.S. military officers have said repeatedly that corruption is as big a threat as the Taliban to the stability of Afghanistan and to the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai’s regime. If the United States is seen as not merely tolerating but abetting high-level corruption, then our soldiers in the field will be seen by the Afghan people as equally untrustworthy; and thus the best-laid counterinsurgency strategy—which depends on winning the hearts and minds of the local population—cannot succeed.

The Times reporters (Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, and James Risen) quote Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior U.S. military intelligence official in Afghanistan, as making pretty much the same point: “If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs,” Flynn said, “then we are just undermining ourselves.”

This is one reason President Barack Obama has been stretching out his deliberations over how many, if any, more troops to send to Afghanistan: He needs to see what happens in Afghan politics and, more to the point, to use the prospect of troop hikes or troop cuts as a lever to get Hamid Karzai to do the right thing—not just for moral, but for very practical, reasons.

For as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged in Senate hearings last month, if Karzai doesn’t settle his political crises and reestablish his legitimacy, no increment of U.S. troops will be able to save his regime or defeat the insurgents.

Karzai’s agreement last week to hold a second-round runoff to the fraud-ridden presidential election was a notable first step; had he refused to do so, Obama and the NATO allies would have been well within reason to call the whole thing off. (I don’t know what Sen. John Kerry told Karzai to bring him around, but such a threat must have been at least implicit.)

Obama has reportedly assured his military advisers that he won’t cut the number of troops in Afghanistan. The subject that he’s been discussing with them, in what I’m told are long but very pointed review sessions (the seventh of which takes place Friday), is not so much how many more troops to send but rather what those troops would do—their overriding strategy, their local tactics, their chance of success, and, by the way, just how “success” is defined.

Another story in today’s Times reports that among Obama’s advisers a consensus is forming around an “enclave” strategy—concentrating troops to protect a small number of cities and towns, perhaps 10, rather than thinly spreading them around the entire country.

One official was quoted as calling this idea “McChrystal in the city, Biden in the countryside”—referring to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who has called for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy geared to protecting the population, and Vice President Joe Biden, who has advocated a less ambitious strategy of attacking insurgent strongholds with airstrikes and special-operations forces.

This characterization makes the idea seem like the sort of “middle approach” that Obama is known to find attractive. And it is. But similar ideas have been circulating among military advisers and analysts for at least the past month, not as a political compromise but as a concession to reality: The United States and NATO combined simply cannot muster the number of troops necessary to control or defeat the Taliban in all Afghanistan.

The idea behind the enclave approach is, first, to keep the Taliban from taking over the centers of government and, second, to create “demonstration zones” of security, stability, and at least some prosperity in the areas where we do send troops and civilian advisers and plenty of money—so that Afghans elsewhere will see the merits of working with the West (i.e., pledging allegiance to their government) and thus dry up support for the Taliban.

Some critics of this idea note its resemblance to the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan during the 1980s and ‘90s. As the Islamic militias gained strength and controlled more territory, the Soviet occupation troops retreated to the large cities, trained the local Afghan army, and propped up puppet regimes and proxy tribal leaders as they themselves began to retreat.

This does look a bit like some of the plans that the Obama administration is considering. But two points should be made. First, the Soviets had invaded and brutalized Afghanistan, killing its people indiscriminately and defoliating what was once a thriving agricultural economy. The United States has hardly been perfect in its years of military presence—not least for practically abandoning the place and heading off to Iraq the minute the Taliban were ousted from Kabul. But whatever else we are, we’re not—nor are we widely perceived to be—just like the Soviets.

Second, as Steve Coll wrote recently in The New Yorker, the Soviet approach worked. That is, the Mujahedeen were kept at bay, the Afghan army grew, the proxy government survived, even after the Soviet troops pulled out—until the Soviet Union itself collapsed. At that point, the money and all the other means of support vanished, the Afghan security apparatus fell apart in an instant, and the Mujahedeen marched into power.

The main issue facing Obama and his advisers is: What does success in Afghanistan look like? If the aim is to keep the Taliban from coming to power and to keep al-Qaida out of the country entirely, what do we need to do, where, and for how long? Only after those questions are answered should the issue of troop strength come up. If the generals calculate that the desired aims require more troops than they and NATO can muster, or than the president can justify, or than Congress and the public can sustain, then those aims need to be reassessed and the calculations have to be done all over again.

This is not “dithering,” contrary to former Vice President Dick Cheney (who, it should be recalled, was rarely deliberative, and still less often right, when it came to foreign policy). It’s what any president should do before deciding to go to war, especially a war in which victory is ill-defined (and, even then, uncertain), the favored strategy is largely theoretical (modern history is hardly overflowing with successful counterinsurgency campaigns), and the theater of battle is a place where friend and foe have been known to trade places in a blink.