Back in October 2009 I put up a post “Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.” In it, I noted that President Obama, in trying to figure out the best strategy in Afghanistan, may be undertaking an impossible task. Afghanistan may not be winnable — at least not at anywhere near a cost we’re willing to pay.
Today as General Stanley McChrystal is called to the White House to answer for remarks he made in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine (I expect him to quit), the drama appears to be a General vs. the White House. The General thinks the White House is not doing enough to win; the White House has long had doubts about McChrystal’s ability to do the job and follow orders. Who is right? Well…neither…or both…
The thing about undertaking impossible tasks is that there will always be someone who thinks that it is someone else’s fault. Thus when things are getting tough, fingers get pointed. It takes awhile for people to have the perspective to say that perhaps the task undertaken was simply not feasible given the conditions and costs — that now is the consensus on the war in Vietnam, or the idea that Iraq would be a model state to transform the Mideast.
The problem is that planners, both civilian and military, can always dream up a plan that on paper looks like it might work. It’s akin to a football coach putting together a plan for a play that should be able to score a winning touch down. If executed right, if the defense plays as we expect, and if there are no other difficulties encountered, then we should score.
But while football is a game with strict rules and constrained inputs and variables, reality in a place like Afghanistan is full of different players, possibilities, conditions and interests. Plans dreamed up that work “on paper” are necessarily vast simplifications of what needs to be done, and built on assumptions that don’t take into account the complexity of the situation and are usually optimistic. That’s why plans put forth by the White House or the Generals usually are vague — details and implementation is where the complexity comes in, and each step of that path is steeped with uncertainty.
Planners understand this, and thus often say the right words when putting forth their ideas: “Things have to go right…corruption and local politics might get in the way…there is a strong chance this could fail…” Deep down, however, there is a sense that all problems can be solved, and the right strategy can work if the best people are on it, and can react to events in a rational manner.
But the complexity of Afghan local politics, the embedded culture of corruption (made worse by the fact now people expect the resources of the state to be worth trillions), external interference, and difficulties in implementation of any strategy make it unlikely that the US will succeed in Afghanistan. At this point, it’s best to say “we gave them a chance, but now they have to make their future.”
That doesn’t mean get out as quickly as possible, nor does it mean to stop humanitarian assistance and some level of military aid. Instead it means to negotiate with all parties, including the Taliban, with some kind of exit so that Afghan politics reflects Afghan interests. We can draw a set of clear boundaries — no support for al qaeda and terrorism in exchange for a hands off Afghanistan policy. We can remind them that if there is another 9-11 the American public, now in an isolationist mood, might suddenly want even more severe action. We can also make arrangements for some level of covert involvement.
Simply, this is not a war the US can “win” if victory is defined in terms of creating the kind of political and social outcome that suits American sensibilities. It would be nice if we could, but reality doesn’t work that way. Cultures and countries develop on their own timetables and in their own manner; trying to force the issue or push them often makes things worse rather than better. The outcome we desire becomes associated not with freedom and prosperity but the whims of an outside power willing to slaughter innocents and bribe elites in pursuit of its interests.
So from a wider perspective the fight between McChrystal and the White House is symbolic of the US trying to win a war it can’t win (again, not at the cost the public would be willing to pay) and solve a problem that defies solution. The only thing to do is redefine the goals downward and find a way to exit sooner rather than later. We face massive long term economic problems and a need for complete reform at home. Right now, we can’t reshape a country which has defied outside interference for millennia. So call McChrystal back, radically change the strategy, put someone new in charge to oversee the change, and have 98% of US troops out by 2012.
UPDATE: As predicted, McChrystal resigned, and now has been replaced by his boss, Gen. David Petraeus. Although I doubt they’ll follow my “get out quickly” advice, I do think the move is smart. Petraeus is a politically adept, PR savvy General who understands the region and the nature of counter-insurgent operations. He is also a pragmatist who hopefully will recognize if the situation is so bleak that it’s more rational to leave than stay. Even then, of course, how we leave is key. It’s probably good that McChrystal was let go and Petraeus put in charge, though I’m sure all sides would have preferred it to be less messy.