Is the “Good War” Worth Fighting?

Former British FSO Rory Stewart has an excellent op-ed in the NY Times framing the coming challenge in Afghanistan.  He starts off by making a critical point: Do we actually have to “win” in Afghanistan?  Or why do we need to “beat” the Taliban to win?  Why can’t winning be defined as something like “not doing anything dumb” and leaving Afghanistan without making things worse?  Would US National Security be damaged if the US simply withdrew from Afghanistan? 

AFGHANISTAN does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks.   Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.

Yes, Afganistan deserves more attention,  but “attention” doesn’t have to be military.  I agree with the author that sending more troops would probably lead to disaster and only make things more difficult. 

President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.

More troops have brought military victories but they have not been able to eliminate the Taliban. They have also had a negative political impact in the conservative and nationalistic communities of the Pashtun south and allowed Taliban propaganda to portray us as a foreign military occupation. In Helmand Province, troop numbers have increased to nearly 10,000 today from just 2,000 in 2004. But no inhabitant of Helmand would say things have improved in the last four years. Mr. Obama believes that sending even more troops and money will now bring “victory” in Afghanistan. Some of this may be politically driven: a pretense of future benefits appears better than admitting a loss; and because lives are involved, no one wants to write off sunk costs. Nevertheless, these increases are not just wasteful, they are counterproductive.

The only way that sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good idea is if it is some kind of way to threaten the Taliban into making more concessions.  The Taliban may be “winning” but they also can not hold out forever.  The key to getting out of Afghanistan with any kind of desirable result is pushing the Taliban to seperate from Al-Qaeda and enter the Afghani political arena.  Yes, as many people have mentioned, this would not be easy as the Taliban is not a unified movement.  Still, there really is no other possible option.

If the US is doomed in Afghanistan…..

then why not talk to the Taliban and try and work out some kind of accommodation?  As I have said previously, they are not natural enemies of the US and there was no reason the Taliban had to be made enemies of the US in the first place- and Abdel Bari Atwan agrees with me.  

Today, Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s lead op-ed says that the US, regardless of who wins the elections,  is doomed and has no options other to think seriously about withdrawal and open a dialogue with the Taliban in order to minimize its losses.

ليس امام الادارة الامريكية الحالية، او أي ادارة أخرى تحل محلها في مطلع العام المقبل غير التفكير جدياً بالانسحاب، وفتح حوار مع ‘طالبان’ من اجل تأمينه بشكل مشرف تقليصاً للخسائر.

This is not Joe Barstool  speaking  (I guess Ahmed Cafe Chair would be more culturally appropriate).  It’s Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which in my opinion is one of the best Arabic newspaper and the most intellectually honest.  See more on the paper  at the MediaShack Media_Guide.   The level of contacts and people who they are talking to to get their information  on Afghanistan and Pakistan is significantly better than what the White COIN people who don’t speak a word of the local languages are getting.  Sorry for the bluntness but its that simple.  And Al-Quds has been sounding this line pretty consistently, although it should also be said that to some extent they are rooting for the US to lose.   But if the US is headed towards a Vietnam in Afghanistan, might it not be time to cut losses while we can?  Yeah, it will suck now- but if the situation will be 5x worse, 5 years from now….