Gen. Stanley McChrystal's removal from his Afghanistan command has let loose a flood of criticism of the administration's war plans that confirms how dreadful the realistic alternatives to the current counterinsurgency approach were last year when Obama approved it. The Rolling Stone profile that led to the general's downfall included an anecdote describing how McChrystal had flatly dismissed Vice President Biden’s preferred "counter-terrorist" approach as something that would create "Chaos-istan." Biden was essentially proposing the continuation of targeted strikes, reduced troop presence and heavy reliance on Special Forces units that had characterized much of the Afghan war effort until last year, and McChrystal saw that as a recipe for dangerous instability. The anecdote was supposed to show McChrystal's unruliness and his difficult relations with the administration, but it was an important reminder that the practical substitute for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not withdrawal and peace. On the contrary, the substitute would be an effectively endless war waged from a distance that duplicates the errors that brought the United States to Afghanistan almost nine years ago.
Few wars suffer from as many popular misconceptions as the war in Afghanistan. It is a war being fought to deprive the Taliban of control of Kabul and shore up the Afghan government so that it does not collapse in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, but the war will not end in the complete defeat of Taliban militias. Pashtun militias of one kind or another will continue to exist and they will remain proxies of elements within Pakistan’s military and security services. Pakistan will be contesting Iran and India for influence in a weak Afghanistan for decades to come, and it is not going to abandon its well-established strategy of using proxies inside neighboring countries to project power. There is no American policy that will significantly change this.
Nor is the war being fought to prevent the destabilization of Pakistan. In fact, to pursue U.S. war aims the Pakistani government and military have been enlisted in the accelerated destabilization of large swaths of their own country with large offensives that have displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Whenever a hawkish critic of the rules of engagement in Afghanistan complains that the military's hands are being tied, he is effectively urging a more destructive course along the lines of what the Pakistani army has been doing. If there is a serious critique of "Af-Pak" policy to be made, it is that the administration has pursued two dramatically different approaches to conflict on different sides of the border.
There will have to be some negotiated settlement that will not reflect the total victory most Americans are accustomed to identifying with military success. Americans are not used to partial victories in limited wars, but these are the only kind we can expect if we are going to take seriously the rights of people in other countries. What the U.S. can and should do under these circumstances is fulfill our minimal obligations to a people whose country we and our allies have been using in proxy fights for decades. It may be that Pashtun dominance cannot be restrained, and it may be that Afghanistan cannot be retrieved from the sorry state that eight years of U.S. neglect and 30 years of war have put it in, but the attempt to do so has to be given more of a chance to work.
"Win or get out" is an appealing slogan, but what many people mean by withdrawal is the perpetuation of conflict in another form. The Afghan war will never end if fighting it is simply an endless string of airstrikes and targeted assassinations, and the "counter-terrorist" value of such actions will be wiped out if the U.S. is perceived as treating Afghanistan as nothing more than a target to be attacked. The potential for radicalizing many new enemies all over the world with such a deliberately callous and short-sighted policy is great.
The chief rationale for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan all this time has been to keep it from reverting to a safe haven for America’s enemies. The withdraw-and-strike approach not only makes it more likely that the U.S. will remain ensnared in the region’s conflicts, but we are more likely to provoke more attacks in retaliation for reckless policies. If the U.S. abandons counterinsurgency for the easier, superficially attractive "counter-terrorist" alternative, there will eventually be even more of the same blowback from unwise policies that brought the United States to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
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