Friday, July 30, 2010

What is likely to happen to Afghanistan and why you can sleep well at night

The release of the so-called Afghan War Diary by Wikileaks resurrected concern over what is really going on in Afghanistan. Besides what is actually happening on the ground on a daily basis and the nominal administration strategy, the big issue is what will likely happen in the years to come. Here is my "forecast." There is no clear and clean "win", no matter what strategy is pursued. Afghanistan is too much of a patchwork of cultures and personalities and nosy neighbors to be "woven" into some new, mythical, ideal "nation" in the western model. That is not to say that we cannot improve institutions and the lives of citizens, but simply that the end result will not look anything like anything that the administration would expect us to expect. The bottom line is that I think we will leave Afghanistan better off than when we got there, but that will still be woefully short of any of the current goals being espoused. It won't be a good thing, but it will be an okay thing.

We will spend the next couple of years exterminating some percentage of the Taliban, but the Taliban will still be around when we "leave" a couple of years from now. We can probably arrange for the major urban areas and areas of strategic importance to be controlled by the western-friendly government (corrupt and inept as it might still be even a couple of years from now), but the Taliban will control a number of "areas" of the country. Some of that control will be sanctioned and negotiated, but some of that control will be de facto due to the inability of either the U.S. or the Afghan government to control 100% of such an ungovernable "country."

U.S. military forces will turn over most operations to the Afghan military, but maintain a significant "presence", both to render assistance if the Taliban seeks to expand out of their "recognized" informal sanctuaries, or if al Qaeda seeks to gain a foothold. The U.S. will continue to execute limited, surgical strikes against the Taliban as needed, but otherwise let them be as long as they stay put and do not harbor or aid al Qaeda.

The U.S. military will likely maintain a number of bases in Afghanistan, but more as a strategic presence to "balance" and deter Iran and extremists in Pakistan than for ongoing warfighting. Maybe they will call them something like "stabilization forces."

So, the U.S. will ramp up warfighting and economic and social improvements over the next one to two years, and then gradually drawdown those forces over the subsequent one to three years. The U.S. will maintain ongoing covert operations in the Pakistani border region, but that will not require any sizeable U.S. presence comparable to current operations in Afghanistan.

It could take another year (or two) and another surge (or two) to finally convince the Taliban to abandon all major urban areas and limit themselves to more isolated areas. That interim period will be quite messy and disconcerting, but that is the price we need to pay to get to "the other side" where we finally convince the Taliban that we mean business.

As far as the idea that an advertised withdrawal date will "embolden our enemies" to hide and wait until we leave, that doesn't seem to recognize the mentality of these people. Right now, there are too many foreign fighters that are "gung ho" to fight Americans. Give them another year (or two) or so and increased U.S. military pressure and that enthusiasm will have waned dramatically.

To be sure, we will have effectively pruned and "trained" the Taliban into a more elite cadre over the next year or two, but a more mature Taliban, a significant portion of which will be controlled by "warlords" with economic objectives more than political objectives, is likely to be more willing to settle into a more stable and durable "standoff" with the U.S. if it means retaining the bulk of their power and forces unchallenged, albeit in more limited and dispersed geographic areas.

As long as the U.S. retains a local capability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, a fragmented Taliban is not really a strategic threat to either the continental U.S., or U.S. "interests" (including Israel) in the region.

In short, it is okay to ignore all the nasty news about Afghanistan and feel free to sleep well at night, every night.

That's it in a nutshell.

-- Jack Krupansky