Prospects in Afghanistan

An interesting discussion about Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution today (I think this page will have transcript and/or video in due course): Bruce Riedel, Michael O’Hanlon, Kimberly Kagan and Anthony Cordesman, moderated by Martin Indyk. To only slightly varying degrees, all the speakers were pretty grim. Despite the recent commitment of extra forces, they see the situation as either bad and getting no better, or actually deteriorating. They think far more troops and other resources are needed, and worry that the administration is putting pressure on General McChrystal and other military commanders to curb their request for more manpower even before they have put their case. Ominous echoes of Rumsfeld, I thought.

None of the speakers volunteered a rationale for being there in the first place. It took a question on that from the audience to elicit what I thought was a perfunctory reply from just one of the panelists. Riedel, if I understood him correctly, made two points.

First, he said that if we weren’t there, we would be unable even to harry al-Qaeda with drones: they could train and organise unmolested. That puzzled me. The US does not need anything like its present commitment, let alone the additional resources the army seems to want, merely to launch unmanned aircraft against al-Qaeda targets. Second, he said that if the West lost to the insurgency, the blow to its credibility in the Muslim world would be too devastating to countenance. This also seemed none too convincing: an all-encompassing rationale which has been offered before for fighting wars that the US then went on to lose at  greater cost than not fighting them in the first place. I want to believe that the West’s fight in Afghanistan is both necessary and likely to succeed, but those arguments do not persuade me.

The discussion started, as these discussions tend to, from a barely examined notion of “success”–a viable, self-supporting and friendly Afghan state–and then inferred from this the resources that will be needed to achieve it. Fine in theory, but Iraq is just the latest reminder that the politics works the other way round. The fight in Afghanistan is already far from popular, and support seems more likely to fall with time than rise. If no compelling rationale can be put before the public,  it may make better sense to accept that the constraint on resources will tighten, and ask how much can be achieved with what little will be available.

This was Gilles Dorronsoro’s argument in a recent FT op-ed. (Though see this letter to the editor in response.) Match goals to means, he argued. Politics rules out the converse. I would like somebody to change my mind, but I find this view depressingly persuasive. Here and here are fuller statements of Dorronsoro’s thinking. He posts other commentary on his Carnegie Endowment page.

Clive Crook’s blog

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I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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