As I was flying home, I got the chance to start reading Seth Jones' "In The Graveyard of Empires", and it's been an excellent read thus far. The analysis of the Taliban in this book, coupled with the analysis in War 2.0 have forced me stop and think about our path in Afghanistan.
Andrew Exum has frequently admitted to a level of confusion regarding future Afghanistan policy--whether to go with the minimalist approach or to go full-fledged counterinsurgency. He mentioned that he often finds it difficult to debate those who are very sure in their convictions over the issue (e.g., Bacevich). It reminded me of an anecdote about Socrates. Socrates was told by an oracle that he was the wisest person in the world. However, Socrates didn't believe the oracle--surely, there were those much more brilliant than he. However, as he sought out someone wiser than he was, he realized that those who were incredibly certain in their convictions were not wiser than he was--they were simply ideologues.
Socrates was wise enough to know that he didn't know as much as he thought he did. The same applies to Afghanistan--it's an immensely complex issue, and no one can be certain what the right path in that country is. Each side of the debate comes with significant drawbacks. The counterinsurgency crowd must determine not only what the end-state is in Afghanistan, but also, what then? What does a stable Afghanistan do in terms of an al Qaeda that's moved to other countries? Similarly, the counter-terror crowd must determine where they will get the vital human intelligence necessary to conduct air strikes and drone raids if there is no visible US presence in the area.
There's a lot of misinformation about Afghanistan, and I wanted to draw some attention to one gross oversimplification for a second. Take this Newsweek article which summarized a debate on Afghanistan between a number of policy experts, to include John Nagl, Ralph Peters (who took his meds, apparently), and a few others. Look at this quote from Steve Coll of the New America Foundation (copied and pasted exactly as it appeared in Newsweek) and tell me what's wrong with it.
Coll: We too often talk about Afghanistan as a primitive land that has been at war for centuries. Afghanistan [before the Soviet invasion in 1979] was a coherent and mainly peaceful independent state. After 2001 Afghans returned to their country from refugee camps and exile to reclaim their state. A strong plurality of Afghans still want to finish that work, and they want the international community to stay and help. Most Afghans are sick of war, and afraid of the Taliban's return. We have an obligation and a national interest and we have the capacity to stand by them
I can't really blame Coll for the remark, as the error in question (boldface) appears to be an editorial mistake on the part of Newsweek's staff. Afghanistan did have periods of stability in the 20th Century. However, it was not the Soviet invasion which suddenly turned Afghanistan into a tumultuous place. Rather, Afghanistan experienced a series of coups in the late 1970s, which then prompted Soviet intervention--it had its brief moments of relative stability and democracy (until it was undermined by deteriorating economic conditions, among other things) before a coup in the late 1970s, which prompted the Soviet invasion, which attempted to reinstate the previous leader.
Anyway, the more I read on the topic of Afghanistan, the more I find myself confused on the issue. No wonder President Obama is taking his time with this issue--we really do find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma on this one.