Tuesday, September 1, 2009

George Will On Afghanistan

I've been a big fan of George Will since my AP European History teacher recommended him way back in 1989.

George Will is a nationally syndicated conservative columnist. Even if you don't agree with him, his cogent presentation of evidence and masterful writing is a pleasure to read. He is reliably conservative ideologically, but is not very partisan - he was more than willing to break with Bush when Bush strayed from the conservative reservation.

In today's Washington Post, George Will argues that we should leave Afghanistan
. From a conservative's perspective, this is a bombshell. Please read the article and note how Will interprets the past, makes analogies to the present, and suggests future action.

You may, if you like (this is optional), reflect on Will's argument in the comments section.

Time to Get Out of Afghanistan

By George F. Will
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Yesterday," reads the e-mail from Allen, a Marine in Afghanistan, "I gave blood because a Marine, while out on patrol, stepped on a [mine's] pressure plate and lost both legs." Then "another Marine with a bullet wound to the head was brought in. Both Marines died this morning."

"I'm sorry about the drama," writes Allen, an enthusiastic infantryman willing to die "so that each of you may grow old." He says: "I put everything in God's hands." And: "Semper Fi!"

Allen and others of America's finest are also in Washington's hands. This city should keep faith with them by rapidly reversing the trajectory of America's involvement in Afghanistan, where, says the Dutch commander of coalition forces in a southern province, walking through the region is "like walking through the Old Testament."

U.S. strategy -- protecting the population -- is increasingly troop-intensive while Americans are increasingly impatient about "deteriorating" (says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) conditions. The war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars, and NATO assistance is reluctant and often risible.

The U.S. strategy is "clear, hold and build." Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.

Military historian Max Hastings says Kabul controls only about a third of the country -- "control" is an elastic concept -- and " 'our' Afghans may prove no more viable than were 'our' Vietnamese, the Saigon regime." Just 4,000 Marines are contesting control of Helmand province, which is the size of West Virginia. The New York Times reports a Helmand official saying he has only "police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for 'vacation.' " Afghanistan's $23 billion gross domestic product is the size of Boise's. Counterinsurgency doctrine teaches, not very helpfully, that development depends on security, and that security depends on development. Three-quarters of Afghanistan's poppy production for opium comes from Helmand. In what should be called Operation Sisyphus, U.S. officials are urging farmers to grow other crops. Endive, perhaps?

Even though violence exploded across Iraq after, and partly because of, three elections, Afghanistan's recent elections were called "crucial." To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals, all of which militate against American "success," whatever that might mean. Creation of an effective central government? Afghanistan has never had one. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry hopes for a "renewal of trust" of the Afghan people in the government, but the Economist describes President Hamid Karzai's government -- his vice presidential running mate is a drug trafficker -- as so "inept, corrupt and predatory" that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, "who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai's lot."

Mullen speaks of combating Afghanistan's "culture of poverty." But that took decades in just a few square miles of the South Bronx. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, thinks jobs programs and local government services might entice many "accidental guerrillas" to leave the Taliban. But before launching New Deal 2.0 in Afghanistan, the Obama administration should ask itself: If U.S. forces are there to prevent reestablishment of al-Qaeda bases -- evidently there are none now -- must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?

U.S. forces are being increased by 21,000, to 68,000, bringing the coalition total to 110,000. About 9,000 are from Britain, where support for the war is waning. Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.

So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now, before more American valor, such as Allen's, is squandered.



  1. Yeah, so my original response was over 1,200 characters over the limit, so I'm putting into two parts. Obviously, this is the first one.

    Ah, George Will. One of the few truly outspoken political writers of our time. He even irritates conservatives sometimes. I'm not a conservative myself, but I always appreciate his input on issues.

    He presents a lot of convincing arguments: that we have little allied support (and our support is NATO, which seems to become more of a joke each year since the end of the Cold War); our involvement has been really, really long (and will only get longer); our lack of knowledge about Afghanistan impedes our state-building goals; we have too few troops in the entire country, let alone the most dangerous provinces in the South and the East, such as Kandahar and Helmand; elections have changed the political landscape too little; corruption is rampant; central government is weak; and Afghanistan is so far behind economically, politically, and militarily that it will be long, grueling process (if possible) to get it on track, and it might not be worth it.

    WAIT A SECOND. It sounds like George Will is making the same arguments against Afghanistan that liberals were making during the worst years of the Iraq War! Interesting....

    Anyway, I'm convinced that our strategy needs to change (thought that for a while), but Will didn't convince me that we should discontinue our involvement in Afghanistan. I think it IS a country that we need to be in.

    Will calls Afghanistan a country that doesn't matter, but doesn't 9/11 itself kind of disprove that? Afghanistan became a terrorist haven and base. That's why we went there. It's such a volatile state that if we were to leave again, it'd likely become a terrorist base again. I also reject his assertion that there are no al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan now. While there might not be any bases there per se (Not sure if there are or not. Is ANYBODY?), I'm pretty sure that the Pakistani border area is an al-Qaeda- and Taliban-heavy area. The Afghan side is as much part of the border land as the especially notorious Pakistani side is. Moreover, I would hardly call a country that is the world's number one poppy producer an insignificant state. And while Pakistan is a country that matters very much (Time called it the most dangerous in the world one or two years ago.), it's quite a different place. It has a fairly effective military (see Pervez Musharraf's use of it plus the pushback of Taliban fighters when they approached Islamabad) and a central government far more advanced than Afghanistan's (see Chief Justice Mohammed Iftikhar Chaudhry incident and the chaos/legal revolution that ensued afterwards plus pioneers such as the late Benazir Bhutto). It is much more equipped than Afghanistan is to ward off terrorists. Afghanistan is clearly the country that needs our help more.

  2. Part two

    "Just 4,000 Marines are contesting control of Helmand province...." While Helmand is perhaps the single most dangerous province in
    Afghanistan, this quotation makes me wonder: How much, exactly, is "just 4,000 Marines"? Is it more or less than in most provinces? How many non-Marine troops are there in Helmand? Is that figure more or less than in most provinces? Is that enough? How many Marines should there be? Do our commanders, such as JCOS Chair Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, think that is enough? Will simply doesn't elaborate on this point, making it half-baked and, in the end, ineffective.

    One last point: how on Earth can will possibly think that a reduced human U.S. presence will help measures in Afghanistan? I don't even know how many articles (in the Washington Post itself) I've read that describe the impact of not having enough of a human presence in Afghanistan. While our Predator attacks and other airstrikes effectively kill insurgents, they also infuriate and inspire fear in Afghans. They don't feel safer because of the drone attacks. In fact, the number of civilian casualties in those attacks make some Afghans defect into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I also doubt that we should rely on intelligence, too. That failed us in Iraq (but that's a whole nother more complex matter), and it's been failing us the past eight years in the location/capture/death of Osama bin Laden Ayman al Zawahiri, and other high-profile al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders (Sure, Baitullah Mehsud was killed in one of our airstrikes in Pakistan, but it took a long time for that to be confirmed.) Intelligence is not always reliable. I thought that the past eight years of war in two countries had taught us that. Furthermore, by the time you get to that paragraph about what we should do, Will had been complaining that our troop presence isn't large enough. Which is it? How is getting more troops over time "inconceivable"? Afghans need a stronger U.S., NATO, and Afghan presence combined with effective government and economic policy to feel safe. If we distance ourselves from our violent doings, we will only seem more imperial to the Afghan people. Our answer cannot be "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan." We'll become even more of a faraway "ally" of the Afghan people.

    So that's my say. I still respect George Will. I'm sure the Kristol article will make me want to puke.


Questions? Comments? Bueller? Bueller?