With elections being held in Afghanistan today, I thought it best to delve into Afghan strategy, despite the eye-rolling that I know I am probably going to receive.
First off, though, a little news from the front. A few days ago, you may recall a story in the NYT indicating that the Taliban were threatening to cut off the ink-stained fingers of any Afghan who voted. In response, the local polling stations have been using alcohol swabs to wash the ink from the fingers of voters.
If you remember back to the Iraqi elections, you will remember Iraqis proudly waving their ink-stained fingers, announcing that they had voted. The purple ink served as a method of ensuring that no voter ventured into the polls twice. Washing the ink off the fingers of Afghans will, of course, not prevent them from voting twice. Nevertheless, as an officer in the 10th Mountain Division remarked, "I don't care if they vote once, twice or ten times — I just need to demonstrate that voters in our district are safe." (courtesy of War is Boring reporter Jason Reich)
Having said that, you may have missed the Afghanistan debate heating up at Foreign Policy Online. Two days ago, Stephen Walt wrote an article in FP Online challenging the assumption that Afghanistan, if abandoned, would serve as a safe haven for al Qaeda, who would use the area to plot future attacks. Over the past eight years, we had accepted this argument at face value and hadn't subjected it to much analysis, particularly with Iraq being in the spotlight so much. However, much has changed in Afghanistan in the past eight years of involvement. Additionally, the situation in Afghanistan is incredibly complex—there are dozens of actors in that country, each with their own motivations.
Walt challenges the standard "safe haven" assumption with a number of rebuttal statements. Many of these arguments are worth examining in full, as each statement seems to be made with varying degrees of validity. What's thrilling to see with the latest strategy assessments is that we seem to be conducting "Systemic Operational Design"—a military planning model (so new, it's not in an official military publication as of yet) which first seeks to understand the problem of an area in all of its facets in order to then decide best as to how to proceed. Although he makes many interesting points, the one I want to home in on is his first point. (This isn't so much for the sake of argument, but rather because it's late and I'm lazy, and I can post the remainder of this tomorrow)
Argument #1: There is no one, monolithic "enemy" in Afghanistan. Rather, an odd mix of various jihadi movements, loosely referred to as the "Taliban", who have a primarily local focus, as opposed to al Qaeda, which is composed largely of foreign Arab fighters, and has a much more global focus.
Nothing frustrates me more than those who confuse al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, a sound byte on Fox News a few months ago quoted Senator McCain [without context] as saying that there is "no difference between al Qaeda and the Taliban". Hopefully, the quote was out of context, because nothing could be further from the truth. The groups are distinctly different and have separate agendas. Indeed, there have been credible reports that AQ and the Taliban have split, completely. One of the key weaknesses of insurgencies is the fact that they are often composed of various factions who would almost as soon fight each other if it weren't for a common enemy. This can work out well if we decide to defeat various factions in turn, but disastrous if we take them all on simultaneously and give them a common enemy.
Check out the rest at Foreign Policy Online, and check out the rebuttals by Peter Bergen (the only Westerner to interview Osama Bin Laden), and Paul Cruickshank. Whatever your take on Afghanistan, there are a lot of misconceptions, and much has changed since American intervention eight years ago. It's best to keep abreast of the latest coming out of that country.