Yesterday afternoon at the Brookings Institution, four analysts portrayed a bleak and terrifying vision of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan in the wake of the presidential election. All four were hawkish, reflecting a growing consensus in the Washington establishment that the Afghanistan war is only just beginning.
Their conclusions: (1) A significant escalation of the war will be necessary to avoid utter defeat. (2) Even if tens of thousands of troops are added to the US occupation, it won’t be possible to determine if the US/NATO effort is succeeding until eighteen months later. (3) Even if the United States turns the tide in Afghanistan, no significant drawdown of US forces will take place until five years have passed.
The experts at the panel were Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran and adviser to four presidents, who chaired President Obama’s Afghan task force; Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert and adviser to General David Petraeus; Tony Cordesman, a conservative military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Kim Kagan, head of the Institute for the Study of War.
Not a single panelist questioned the goals, purpose or objectives of the Afghan war. Not one said anything about a political solution to the war, about negotiations, or about diplomacy. Not one questioned the viability of an open-ended commitment to the war. And none of them had any doubts about the strategic necessity of defeating the Taliban and its allies. Although the growing political opposition to the war was referenced in passing — more than half of Americans say the the war isn’t worth fighting, and liberal-left members of Congress are beginning to raise objections — the panel seemed to believe that President Obama can and must ignore politics and push to expand the war when General McChrystal, as expected, recommends an increase in the the level of US forces once again. O’Hanlon, a well-connected, ultra-hawkish Democrat who backed the war in Iraq, said that the chances that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will lead congressional opposition to the war in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 are zero. “Congress will not pull the rug out from under Barack Obama, before the mid-term elections,” he asserted, calling the very idea “unthinkable” and “political suicide.”
O’Hanlon, who had just returned from Afghanistan, acknowledged that McChrystal is “fully aware that, right now, America is not winning this war.” But he gently scolded Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, for saying that the war is “deteriorating.” If Mullen goes around saying that in public, even after the addition of 21,000 US troops in 2009, he makes it harder to convince Americans that the war is winnable. O’Hanlon strongly favors adding yet more troops, but he didn’t provide numbers on how many forces the US will need ultimately. If the United States can turn things around, “In four to five years we will be able to substantially downsize.”
The bleakest account of the war came from Cordesman, Washington’s resident Cassandra. He delivered a blistering assessment of the Bush administration’s complete failure to pursue the Afghan war, with “almost no coherence in strategy” for seven years. President Bush, he said, didn’t properly “resource” (i.e., fund) the war, kept troop levels far too low, and failed to build the Afghan National Army (ANA). In addition, he said, US intelligence was extremely poor. The Bush administration and the Pentagon lied about how the war was going, saying, for instance, that only 13 out of 364 Afghan districts were threatened by the Taliban, when if fact nearly half of the country was under siege. And he said that, even under McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry, a former military commander, coordination between the military command and the embassy is “extremely poor.”
Cordesman warned that McChrystal and the NATO/ISAF command is under pressure from the White House and the National Security Council not to increase troops levels, and he warned that if “politically correct” limitations are imposed on the US war effort, “I believe we will lose this war.” He blasted General James Jones, the national security adviser, for expressing White House opposition to additional troops during a meeting with McChrystal at which Bob Woodward of the Washington Post was present. Of the four panelists, Cordesman was the only one who suggested that Obama and the NSC might resist McChrystal’s request for additional forces.
Riedel presented a series of alternative outcomes of the presidential election, which may or may not result in a second-round runoff election in October. He seemed gloomy about the overall election results, noting that overall turnout was held to 30 to 40 percent, and that in some provinces turnout would be far less, below 20 percent. In some areas, less than 5 percent of women voted at all, he said. And he said that President Karzai, if he wins, will emerge even more dependent than before on warlords. Indeed, amid charges of widespread fraud being leveled by leading opposition candidates, general apathy and disaffection about the vote from the majority Pashtun population, and effective Taliban-led intimidation, the election may not create any sense of legitimacy for the next government. (According to Cordesman, “Regardless of who wins, we will not have people capable of governing the country.”)
But Riedel’s more apocalyptic point came in response to a questioner who wondered why the war is important. If we lose in Afghanistan, or if we withdraw, it will trigger a victorious war dance throughout the Muslim world by radicals and militants, he said. Riedel portrayed the stakes in the war as nothing less than dealing a fatal blow to jihadism. “The triumph of jihadism, in driving NATO out of Afghanistan, will resonate throughout the Muslim world,” he said, comparing it to the belief among many Al Qaeda and Taliban types that the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowhere did Riedel suggest that there is a middle ground between crushing the Taliban and an outright Taliban victory over the United States, say, by reaching a political solution brokered by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other outside parties with large sections of the Taliban leadership. Nor did any of the panelists suggest that it’s possible to split Al Qaeda and the most extreme elements of the anti-Western forces in Afghanistan-Pakistan away from other Islamists, such as the Taliban’s core leadership and guerrilla chieftains such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former US and CIA ally in the 1980s, who is now a key ally of the Taliban.
Martin Indyk, who runs foreign policy for Brookings, asked Riedel if reality, so far, clashed with the plan that he helped draw up for Obama earlier this year. No, said Riedel. He said that Obama had inherited a disaster in Afghanistan from the Bush administration.”Trying to turn that around overnight is an illusion,” he said. (He failed to note that in trying to turn it around, Obama is turning it in the wrong direction, i.e., toward escalation rather than de-escalation.) “Anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we’re going to be anywhere close to victory is living in a fantasy,” Riedel said. He did leave open the possibility that the conflict is now unwinnable, and that the US escalation is “too little, too late.” But, like the rest of the panelists, Riedel suggested that there is no alternative to victory.
Sadly, like Richard Holbrooke, who two weeks ago told a Washington audience that he can’t define victory, none of the panelists bothered to explain what victory might look like either — only that it will take a decade or more to get there.