I am highly skeptical of the trend in US politics and policymaking of governing from a so-called “pragmatic” middle. This method involves taking two proposals from opposite ends of the political spectrum, watering them down into some kind of average of the two, and assuming that this is the most likely to succeed. This kind of misguided thinking has brought us such winners as a residual force in Iraq and Blue Dog Democrats.
Ilan Goldenberg of the National Security Network offers a more thoughtful but ultimately flawed case for the “middle path” for Afghanistan policy. He acknowledges that the President has “no good options,” but concludes that the middle path is better than the alternatives, “all-in” or “minimalist.”
In order to have a real debate about the relative merits of these options, we need a solid understanding of what they entail, and this is where I take issue with Goldenberg’s characterizations of what he calls the “minimalist” approach:
The approach we advocate at Peace Action West is not based on the idea that there’s not much we can do in Afghanistan, but rather that there’s not much we can do through military force. It is “minimalist” from a military perspective, but is the approach likely to have the maximum positive impact on US and Afghan security and well being. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for how a relatively small increase in the US troop presence in Afghanistan can realistically advance security goals and meet humanitarian needs. In fact, Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert on Afghanistan, writes, “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban. The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.”
In a recent poll, only 18% of Afghans said they support sending more US troops to Afghanistan. Afghans and Pakistanis are increasingly outraged at civilian casualties incurred during air strikes and night raids, including a recent case in which the US claimed to have killed five militants, while the local people insist they were civilians. Some proponents of the escalation will argue that more boots on the ground will mean fewer civilian casualties, but Human Rights Watch reports that most casualties occur when troops call in additional air support while they are engaged with insurgents, so more soldiers wouldn’t necessarily mean fewer of these incidents. Fomenting resentment of the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more likely to drive people to extremism, not decrease the threat from terrorism.
There is momentum around intensifying the military strategy because that is what we have been doing, despite that fact that it hasn’t netted positive results. There are myriad tools at the US’s disposal that would help us address our security needs and the moral obligations Goldenberg highlights. Regional diplomacy, effective nonmilitary counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian aid and development are far more likely to create stability and goodwill than more soldiers.
As far as the concern about terrorist groups, is it “cavalier” to base your thinking on years of historical data about eradicating terrorism rather than a continuation of a failed strategy? The RAND Corporation’s report “How Terrorist Groups End” notes than since 1968, only 7% of terrorist groups that ended were defeated through military force. Forty percent were “penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies,” and 43% reached a “peaceful political accommodation with their government.” I would be interested to hear proponents of the escalation explain why they think this situation will fall in that narrow 7%. After examining the historical data and applying it to US efforts against Al Qaeda, RAND concluded:
• Make policing and intelligence the backbone of U.S. efforts. Al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This requires careful involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.
• Minimize the use of U.S. military force. In most operations against al Qa’ida, local military forces frequently have more legitimacy to operate and a better understanding of the operating environment than U.S. forces have. This means a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.
Many of us who oppose the military strategy in Afghanistan do so both because of our despair at the devastation caused to the people of Afghanistan, and the fact that the current strategy isn’t making Afghans or Americans safer. We don’t want the “middle” path we want the best path. Progressive and pragmatic are not mutually exclusive, and hopefully more of our policymakers will realize that sooner than they did about the war in Iraq.
To his credit, Goldenberg acknowledges that the middle path may not work, and if it doesn’t appear to be successful within 12-18 months, the US should shift to a minimalist approach. But with little compelling evidence that the middle path will work, and ample evidence that it will exacerbate the situation on the ground, why risk more American and Afghan lives and billions of taxpayer dollars?
President Obama said some encouraging things in his recent interview with 60 Minutes:
I am inclined to believe President Obama when he says that sending more troops was a difficult decision, and that he is thinking carefully about US strategy in Afghanistan. That doesn’t change my opposition to his plan
ned military escalation, and my concern is that the voices that support alternatives to the military strategy are not being heard by the administration, the media, or Congress. As President Obama prepares to release his strategy, this is a critical time to raise awareness about alternatives and start a real debate. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is helping by hosting a series of forums on Afghanistan for Hill staff, members of Congress, the media and the public. You can help by keeping the pressure on and letting our government know you want to see a better strategy. Click here to become an Afghanistan Witness.
Right now, the voices in support of the “middle path” are strong, but as we did with the war in Iraq, we can ultimately make our voices stronger.
Flickr photo courtesy of startledrabbit III.