A few months back (31 March and 22 April) I noted that there were basically two main camps in the Obama administration in regards to Afghanistan (originally reported by William Lind at Defense and the National Interest). The first camp was led by Secretary Clinton, General Petraeus and Ambassador Holbroke, and advocated a grandiose nation-building campaign similar to what we see attempting to be implemented right now. Camp number two was led by Vice President Biden, and favored a minimalist campaign aimed at al Qaeda and the Taliban. Surprisingly, it seems to have borne some similarity to the same plan advocated by Ralph Peters in a sensible (!) essay this past week.
We see option #1 in its infancy. The outspoken critics of this camp seem to advocate a complete withdrawal, with an emphasis on pursuing al Qaeda with over-the-horizon capabilities. Rarely do we hear from the Biden camp, which is a half-measure between complete withdrawal (which brings with it the obvious difficulties of over-the-horizon force projection, as Adam Elkus points out) and the attempt to turn Afghanistan into a social utopia.
I, personally, fall into this middle camp, as I feel that the original mission to root out al Qaeda in Afghanistan has fallen victim to egregious mission creep, neglect, and irrelevance with al Qaeda’s move into Pakistan. Plus I don’t see Afghanistan becoming a modern nation-state without an investment of a century or more of involvement and trillions of dollars. But, as LeVar Burton says, you don’t have to take my word for it…
Two articles today seem to advocate a minimalist/realist approach to Afghanistan—the course between abject withdrawal and the grandest (and most difficult) nation-building enterprise imaginable:
The first is “The Afghan Abyss” by Nicholas Kristof, in The New York Times
The solution is neither to pull out of Afghanistan nor to double down. Rather, we need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.
This would be a muddled, imperfect strategy with frustratingly modest goals, but it would be sustainable politically and militarily. And it does not require heavy investments of American and Afghan blood.
Next is “In Afghanistan, Let’s Keep It Simple” by Ahmed Rashid in the Washington Post:
So what needs to be done? First, the American and European people need to be told the truth: Their governments have failed them in Afghanistan over the past eight years, and not a single aspect of rebuilding the minimalist state was undertaken until it was too late. The capital, Kabul, for example, got regular electricity only this year, despite billions of dollars in international aid. Millions of dollars for agriculture has been wasted in cockamamie schemes to grow strawberries and raise cashmere goats.
Governments also need to explain that the terrorist threat has grown and that al-Qaeda has spread its tentacles throughout Africa and Europe. And the West must admit that the Taliban has become a brand name that resonates deep into Pakistan and Central Asia and could extend into India and China.
Second, the minimalist state must be rebuilt at breakneck speed. President Obama understands this. His plan for the first time emphasizes agriculture, job creation and justice; on paper, at least, it's an incisive and productive blueprint. But will he be given the time to carry it out?
The Obama administration can come out of this quagmire if it aims low, targets the bad guys, builds a regional consensus, keeps the American public on its side and gives the Afghans what they really want -- just the chance to have a better life.
There is no alternative but for the United States to remain committed to rebuilding a minimalist state in Afghanistan. Nothing less will stop the Taliban and al-Qaeda from again using Afghanistan and now Pakistan to wreak havoc in the region and around the world.
Again, there’s no easy answer to Afghanistan, but I think that a middle ground between attempting to create a strong, Western-style nation state, and complete abandonment is probably the best course. A "middle ground" that's decidedly different than the "middle ground" we've been engaged in for the past eight years. Once again, I'll state the obvious in that we’ll need to re-define victory (H/T AE), if such a term is actually applicable in “small wars”.