All of the supporting arguments for maintaining nation building in Afghanistan fall rather flat when placed under the spotlight of logic.
- The Taliban did not attack us on 9/11. We would have reacted in the same manner under threat of extradition versus military force as the Taliban regime did. There is no compelling evidence that a coalition with Taliban or an outright Taliban regime return would engender a desire for them to allow Al Qaeda to return under state sanction. The situation since mid-2002 has been ISAF fighting far more Taliban elements than Al Qaeda. Killing a few Taliban joes here and there with multi-million dollar weaponry hasn't gotten us anywhere. The troops to task methodology for the first seven years merely expended our national treasure. This dynamic has changed for the better very recently, but it's too little, too late. And given the paradigm we're operating in, it will always be too little.
- Al Qaeda has largely moved into Pakistan or elsewhere. That's not saying that they won't return, but our presence is not preventing them from moving and proliferating elsewhere. Al Qaeda did not conduct primary planning and training in Afghanistan for the 9/11 attack. If we continue to escalate our military presence and further tie down resources, and Al Qaeda core cadre move into Mindanao, Yemen or Uganda....and another attack is committed on US soil, we still look as silly and impotent as if we withdraw from Afghanistan. The key difference is that we would be better positioned to conduct punitive actions and surgical strikes. There is no reason to believe that AQ cannot multitask and conduct simultaneous operations; our presence in Afghanistan is on no way going to stop a committed attack.
- Without a solid commitment from Pakistan [and notably, the ISI] our actions in Afghanistan are largely futile. Without a clear, regional security agreement with India, Pakistan is not going to commit to neutralizing AQ and Taliban elements within the FATA. Our efforts to that end, public anyway, have been near nonexistent.
- Comparisons with Iraq are not remotely comparable in my opinion. Iraq has an urban and urbane middle class, as well as some history of a central government, albeit totalitarian in nature. Iraq has urban areas that act as centers of gravity for bad guys and good guys alike. Iraq has infrastructure, industry and an economy based largely on oil, that allows it to maintain possibly necessary security forces to combat internal extremism and external threats. In Iraq, conventional formations were far more adept to applying COIN strategies than in Afghanistan, for the reasons listed above. In Afghanistan, if you're not bearded and speak the language, you're not going to get far in many cases. An LT with a good airborne haircut and Oakley's is almost universally not going to get a Pashtun villager who's lived his whole life in the same valley to dime out his cousin or fellow tribesman who moonlights as a rent-a-Taliban. Especially when conversed through a Terp.
Lastly, watch what you wish for. Based on my experience in Baghdad and seeing the rise of the Maliki regime, with it's inherent Shiite hegemony, do not expect that Iraq will be friendly to the US. Especially if a hard line is taken towards Iran. The religious and fraternal ties run too deep....and we may find ourselves facing another unfriendly regional security threat, this time in the form of a Pan-Shiite alliance.
- We must be watchful for two very shallow yet enkindling public-political phenomena. The first being 'defeatism'. This affects the military by disallowing soldiers to have a just and noble cause in which they are suffering for, and their brothers are dying and being wounded for. Nobody in the military wants to fight and die for an endeavor that we don't see through to a final victory, that goes against our nature. This defeatism affects the public by denting the spirit of patriotism and American exceptionalism. Both are intangible and largely irrelevant to a final outcome, but wildly proliferated in the media and by politicians. The problem lies in the fact that using this sentiment, there is never a stopping point. Spilling more blood leads to spilling even more blood to make the spilling of blood seem worthwhile.....lather, rinse and repeat.
The second is propaganda. Make no mistake, if/when we withdraw Al Qaeda will proclaim it as a massive victory over the infidel empire. This propaganda will translate into a spike in recruiting and fund raising....but it will be short term. The continued [and in the eyes of many Afghan's, permanent] presence of foreign military formations provides a sustaining and enduring propaganda front, recruiting tool and monetary impetus for Al Qaeda to profit from. I have said from the beginning, that Osama bin Laden's ultimate goal was to draw the US into a near perpetual military engagement in the gulf region. This saps our economy, stretches our military to a near breaking point, weakens our defense posture and ultimately causes tension between us and our allies. While I'm not sure OBL could have prognosticated winning the terrorist lottery with our misadventure into Iraq, we have played by Al Qaeda's script line by line. We didn't come close to destroying AQ by invading Afghanistan; their use of that quasi-nation was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to give us a point to attack and become drawn in, while the cadre scoots out the back door, leaving some foot soldiers to keep our attention.
- I need not rehash the tribal nature of the various Afghan ethnicities, and the poor economic condition which leads to far more $50 Taliban than ISAF forces.
The Obama Administration has shown great maturity in the wake of the McChrystal Report, after the naive 'good war' proclamation of the campaign. But in the end, I fear that they will cow to the perception that if a troop request and escalation are not granted, the Democrats will validate the stereotype that they are weak on national defense and terrorism...and thus the cycle will continue. I hope I am wrong.
The key to breaking the cycle, is to refrain from relying on the same team who pressed for the Iraq war....the Kagan's, AEI, etc...and start including Sageman, Barnett, Fick, etc....
Wishful thinking perhaps......