With 14 more dead Americans today, in three helicopter crashes, it’s beginning to look like President Obama will, after all, opt for a significant escalation of the war — at least, according to the Wall Street Journal. On Saturday, the paper reported the first substantial leak about the president’s plans after the weeks-long policy review:
“The Obama administration is moving toward a hybrid strategy in Afghanistan that would combine elements of both the troop-heavy approach sought by its top military commander and a narrower option backed by Vice President Joe Biden, a decision that could pave the way for thousands of new U.S. forces.
“The emerging strategy would largely rebuff proposals to maintain current troop levels and rely on unmanned drone attacks and elite special-operations troops to hunt individual militants, an idea championed by Mr. Biden. It is opposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, and other military officials.
“One scenario under consideration, according to an official familiar with the deliberations, calls for deploying 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. reinforcements primarily to ramp up the training of the Afghan security forces. But Gen. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops also remains on the table.
“People familiar with the internal debates say Mr. Obama rejected a strictly counter-terror approach during White House deliberations in early October. One official said Pentagon strategists were asked to draft brief written arguments making the best case for each strategy, but the strategists had difficulties writing out a credible case for the counter-terror approach — prompting members of Mr. Biden’s staff to step in and write the document themselves.
“Signs the White House is moving towards Gen. McChrystal’s view of the conflict mounted Friday as the 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers endorsed the commander’s counterinsurgency strategy and signaled they might be open to modestly increasing their military and civilian contributions to the war effort.”
If this is true, there’s a gloomy way to assess it, namely, that Obama is intent on “winning” the war, whatever it takes, and that an increase of 10,000 to 20,000 US forces — even if called “trainers” — is just a downpayment. The more optimistic, or shall I say, charitable interpretation is that this is another “feint” by Obama, i.e., that the president understands that the war isn’t winnable, and yet he’s unwilling to suddenly reverse course and set a drawdown timetable. (Training Afghans is Senator Carl Levin’s preferred solution, as hopeless as that task might be.) Christine Fair, the AfPak specialist, is willing to give the latter interpretation to what Obama might do. As she told me in a recent interview:
“I do think we need to keep the training mission. In fact, it’s possible that we could even scale up our troops in order to get the hell out. Right now, the training mission is woefully understaffed. Only one in three spots are filled. So if you put troops in, and you put them on a training mission so that instead of a kinetic mission we build up those forces so we can get the hell out. And we need to put up a big tin pot, saying, ‘These troops can’t support themselves.'”
Fair, an intelligent observer, is a strong opponent of the COIN (counterinsurgency) cult, and she ridicules those who conflate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Here’s a partial transcript of her comments, in our interview. It’s worth reading in full:
Q. Do you have any idea of what Obama’s going to do?
FAIR: “No, I think we are genuinely in a place of confusion about what our national interests are. And it doesn’t help that there’s this class of people who say that if we don’t decisively defeat the Taliban, then Al Qaeda will come back. Or – my favorite is – if we let the Taliban come back, then Al Qaeda will come back. And of course that’s a moronic view, because the Taliban never even left Afghanistan. The Taliban are back. They didn’t leave. They consolidated their position, they expanded their position, and they’ve made new inroads into places that were previously secure.
“So we need to be asking a different question, which is not, ‘How do we defeat the Taliban?’ Because that assumes that the Taliban are defeatable, given our national resources and – I don’t know how to say this nicely, this be-caped, kleptocrat narco-trafficker president who got reelected through massive fraud as our partner in Kabul. So the question we should be asking is not, ‘How do we defeat the Taliban?’ but, ‘How do we secure our interests vis-à-vis Al Qaeda in spite of the return of the Taliban?’
“And this return of the Taliban, I might add, was also facilitated by Karzai himself. I mean, I was there as an election monitor, and the news was absolutely rife with stories about deals that were made by Karzai whereby stuffed ballot boxes would be returned through [Taliban] territory without problems, while at the same time no individual would actually have to cast a vote, so the Taliban would not have egg on their faces for letting people vote! So Karzai actually facilitated deals with the Taliban to enable his electoral fraud. And in other cases, Taliban commanders contested the election at the provincial level, either directly or through proxies. They basically threatened any of the competition. So at the level of political engagement, the Taliban are already in the game.
“And there’s another thing that drives me nuts, apart from conflating Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which seems to be the name of the game. And that’s that the term ‘Taliban’ has come to mean everything and nothing. Just because we can’t deal with Mullah Omar doesn’t mean that some commander in a narco-trafficking district in Helmand is not flippable because he’s controlled by Mullah Omar. So what’s needed is a real, honest debate about what’s happened, what mistakes have we made, which ones are recoverable and which ones aren’t?
“And that’s another reason why this COIN approach won’t work. Some mistakes that we made, we can’t recover from. Like letting the Northern Alliance back in, these recuperated warlords that Afghans hated. Not only did we let them back in, we made them the outsourcers of our security problem. So that led to a number of problems. Because when the Pakistanis saw that the Northern Alliance were back, despite our promises that we wouldn’t let the Northern Alliance take Kabul, the Pakistanis read that as giving the Indians the keys, because they were back, supplying the Northern Alliance, they had an air base in Tajikistan they were using to resupply the Northern Alliance, they had a military officer there to train the Northern Alliance. So when the Pakistanis view the Northern Alliance as an Indian proxy, it was for good reason: they were an Indian proxy! I actually met an Indian brigadier general who claimed that he trained the Northern Alliance from the base. A lot of this is out in the open domain, whereas the Indians used to deny it. And now that’s out, the Indians say, ‘If it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t have the Northern Alliance to go into Afghanistan with.’ And the Indians are very proud of their record with the Northern Alliance. And so that also explains why when the Northern Alliance came back, the Pakistanis very quickly reassessed what the Americans understood about what they were getting involved in, i.e., we didn’t understand much. And that it wasn’t in their interests to dump the Taliban. I think that’s why, in very short order, the Pakistanis supported the United States at the strategic level while still very much maintaining their strategic engagement with the Taliban as well.”
Q. If there’s a way out of this, do we need to start with the Pakistanis, get them to bring the Taliban to the table? And maybe that means giving the Pakistanis and the Saudis some stuff that they want, because we need their cooperation?
FAIR: “That’s one formulation of the problem. I have a somewhat different take. If you believe that the Taliban is our key national security concern, then what you say is right. I don’t think they are our preeminent national security concern. The Taliban are a bunch of hillbillies. They are a parochial, territorial insurgency. Despite all of the hullaballoo, they don’t really have an international agenda. These guys are focused on Afghanistan, period. Our concerns are Al Qaeda. And there are more Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and there are more international terrorist groups operating in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. A vast majority of these international terrorist conspiracies that have been busted in Europe and the U.K., their footprints are in Pakistan. Obviously, Jaish-e Muhammad, Lashkar-e Taiba, the list goes on and on and on. These guys are all in Pakistan. And Pakistan has been using militant groups for six decades as part of their policy. …
“So I would argue that we’ve got this so completely bass-ackwards that it’s almost comical! We’ve got these troops in Afghanistan, so we’ve got to placate Pakistan, cajole it, make it feel important, throw money at it, because we need Pakistan to support the logistics. So we have this narrative that says, to stabilize Afghanistan we need to get Pakistan’s support. Stabilizing Afghanistan’s not the goal. Quite the contrary. We need to be in a different place in Afghanistan so we can play hardball with the Pakistanis. So the idea is, we have to stabilize Afghanistan, so we need to get Pakistan and all these other clowns on board? That’s not our objective. Our objective is to wrap up international terrorism, limit our exposure to it, and to preclude a nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent, and to preclude nuclear proliferation. And all of the return addresses for those problems are right there in Pakistan. And because of our position in Afghanistan, we are so adversely positioned to deal with Pakistan.”
Q. So, what do you think we should do?
FAIR: “I think we should do what’s currently being discussed, which is: realize we can’t win the counterinsurgency, because it’s not ours to win. Foreigners don’t win at counterinsurgency, locals do. And locals are not going to win this, because this local government is just so sub-optimal! Bad government is worse than no government at all. We can keep building the Afghan army, the police – but they can’t ever pay for it. They can’t pay for their own election! How are they going to pay for an army?
“I think we should go ahead, keep throwing resources at training, try to set up some trust fund to pay for this when it stabilizes, but really get our troops out of kinetics. The more troops we have killing people, the harder it is. Everyone blames us for everything. When the Taliban kills civilians we get blamed, because without us there would be no insurgents. When we kill civilians, the Taliban of course exaggerates the numbers and says that we killed women and children going to the mosque, or whatever, whatever makes us look really bad. We get blamed for propping up this corrupt government. So I think we should be scaling back the COIN effort, recognizing that it’s not winnable. … Rather than sending our men and women to their doom, we should be asking questions. What is the alternative to COIN? Take for granted that we’re going to lose the COIN. How do we secure ourselves against Al Qaeda?”
Q. But is Al Qaeda such a big threat?
FAIR: “I’m with you. This has been a fake argument.”