Monday, November 09, 2009

Gates whistles past the graveyard of empires

Robert Gates does not think that sending more troops toAfghanistan will put the U.S. on course to replay the Soviet disaster. He recently told Mike Crowley:
“I heard General McChrystal when he says it’s not so much the size of the footprint as how you use those troops, and I accept that. I think that’s right.”

“It’s also important to realize that the Soviets carried out a war of terror against the Afghan people,” he continued. “I mean, they killed a million, probably made five million refugees, and no country in the world supported what they were doing. We have a completely different situation in all those categories right now. They also tried to impose an alien culture and social order on the Afghans that was completely contrary to their history and culture. So I think the important thing is, as we look at the Soviet experience, to draw the right lessons from it and not just automatically say that because they lost, everybody loses.”

Though he wouldn’t discuss his advice to Obama with me, Gates has made several public comments that suggest a belief in a large troop presence. Speaking at a CNN roundtable discussion in early October, for instance, Gates warned against ceding large swaths of territory to the Taliban, as a counterterrorism strategy may entail. “There’s no question in my mind that, if the Taliban took large--took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, that that would be added space for Al Qaeda to strengthen itself,” Gates said. Such an outcome, he added, would be “hugely empowering” for Al Qaeda’s recruitment and fund-raising.

Steve Coll has picked apart the Soviet analogy in more detail:

By comparison to the challenges facing the Soviet Union after it began to "Afghanize" its strategy around 1985 and prepare for the withdrawal of its troops, the situation facing the United States and its allies today is much more favorable. Afghan public opinion remains much more favorably disposed toward international forces and cooperation with international governments than it ever was toward the Soviet Union. The presence of international forces in Afghanistan today is recognized as legitimate and even righteous, whereas the Soviets never enjoyed such support and were unable to draw funds and credibility from international institutions. China today wants a stable Afghanistan; in the Soviet era, it armed the Islamic rebels. The Pakistani Army today is divided and uncertain in its relations with the Taliban, and beginning to turn against them; during the Soviet period, the Army was united in its effort to support Islamist rebels. And even if the number of active Taliban fighters today is on the high side of published estimates, those numbers pale in comparison to the number of Islamic guerrillas fighting the Soviet forces and their Afghan clients.

In other words, the project of an adequately stable Afghan state free from coercive Taliban rule for the indefinite future can be achieved, although there are no guarantees.
On the other hand, Coll himself has elsewhere pointed to aspect of the Soviet experience in Afghanisan that remain dauntingly relevant:
The Soviets failed in Afghanistan for many reasons, beginning with the brutality of their military campaigns and the implausibility of their political strategy. Nonetheless, by the end of the 1980s, they had constructed a durable ink spot strategy, albeit one based on a more defensive and internally ruthless political-military strategy from the one McChrystal is proposing. The Soviets were unable, however, to convert that partial territorial achievement into a broader and more durable strategic success. Partly they just ran out of time, as often happens in expeditionary wars. Their other problems included their inability to control the insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan; their inability to stop infiltration across the Pakistan-Afghan border; their inability to build Afghan political unity, even at the local level; their inability to develop a successful reconciliation strategy to divide the Islamist insurgents they faced; and their inability to create successful international diplomacy to reinforce a stable Afghanistan and region. Does that list of headaches sound familiar?
One more headache: today the Taliban seems as well-funded by Arab money as it was with our help in the 1980s. One current operative recently reminisced to Newsweek:
YOUNAS: After these first few attacks [by the Taliban, as their resistance to the Kabul government picked up force], God seems to have opened channels of money for us. I was told money was flowing from the Gulf to the Arabs.
The money flow; the Pakistani sanctuary; the uncertain role of the ISI; the rampant corruption and deeply compromised legitimacy of the Kabul government...the barriers to fostering an Afghan government that can maintain anything like a state monopoly on violence provide plenty of fodder for quagmire anxiety

Then, too, while Gates suggests that the U.S. is not trying to "impose an alien culture and social order on the Afghans" many critics consider a U.S.-led attempt to institute democracy, fight corruption and establish central governmental authority throughout the country as doing just that. See, e.g., Matthew Hoh...

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