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Beware Of "Very Serious People" Bearing Gifts
Posted by on July 22nd, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

Michael Cohen is right that the overall direction of the debate about the West's best strategy in Afghanistan now leans heavily "toward de-escalation, not escalation". The obvious reality on the ground has meant that the anti-war movement and "COINtras" have won that argument because escalation proponents themselves admit there's no prospect for it's success in any timeframe or budget that makes sense. But I'd caution my friends who have argued long and hard for escalation to beware of Beltway "very serious persons" bearing gifts as they climb aboard the de-escalation bandwagon.

A case in point is Bush-era deputy NSA Robert Blackwill's notion of a de facto partition of Afghanistan into a Taliban-controlled Pashtun South and a Kabul-controlled everywhere else. It's an argument Blackwill is pushing hard, from it's original appearance in a Politico op-ed to his piece in the UK's Financial Times today, and at first glance a beguiling one.

In spite of the commitments made at Tuesday’s conference on the future of Afghanistan in Kabul, the current US counter-insurgency strategy (Coin) is likely to fail. The Taliban cannot be sufficiently weakened in Pashtun Afghanistan to coerce it to the negotiating table. America cannot win over sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom Coin depends. President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt government shows no signs of improvement. The Afghanistan army cannot stand up to the Taliban for many years, if ever. Pakistan’s military continues to support its Afghan Taliban proxies. And the long-term Coin strategy and the far shorter US political timeline are incompatible.

President Barack Obama has promised to review the administration’s Afghanistan policy in December. After this review the US should stop talking about exit strategies, and accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south. Instead Washington should move to ensure that north and west Afghanistan do not fall too, using for many years to come US air power and special forces – some 40,000-50,000 troops – along with the Afghan army and the help of like-minded nations. Such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to America’s 10 years in Afghanistan. But, regrettably, it is now the best that can realistically and responsibly be achieved.

One can see why this approach would be popular among FT readers. British leaders are fed up with Afghanistan, are only still there because of the nation's need to cozy up to the U.S., and the old solution of setting up colonial divisions to ensure the wogs keep busy fighting each other must seem tempting. But do we need to be so obvious about it?

In any case, Birdwell's not telling us the whole story. While, as my friend Joshua Foust puts it, "if I had to choose between leaving people with the corrupt Karzai government or the Taliban I'd pick corrupt Karzai", that's likely to be a false binary since Karzai's entire plan is for the West to leave the Afghan people with some form of Karzai/Taliban/Everybody Else coalition. The result is more likely to be decentralization – a "patchwork quilt" as the CFR's Richard Haass terms it. 

However Haass' call for the US and it's allies to deliberately set up such a patchwork quilt suffers from the same basic flaw Blackwill's idea does. Both rely on the false "Pottery Barn Rule" that we can justify forcing the shopkeepers to run their store in a particular way just because we broke it, that invasion is just cause for further intervention and denial of local self-determination. Just because decentralization seems the most likely outcome gives us no mandate to dictate that outcome to Afghans. They surely have the right to decide how to best run their own store, or not run it as the case may be.

Finally, neither Blackwill nor Haass' grand ideas for further Western meddling actually end the occupation, ever. Both see a residual Western troop presence in perpetuity, and more meddling. For that reason, I'd urge my friends in the anti-war movement to reject both as shabby, attempted co-option of that movement by the Beltway Boys who got us into this mess in the first place.

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