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Stagnation, costs and waiting
Posted by on June 2nd, 2011

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By Dave Anderson

Joshua Foust at Registan recaps a New Yorker article concerning Khost Province.  The story is simple, it is more of the same with little change in results.

reading Anderson’s piece it’s also clear that the war itself hasn’t changed in Khost province, either. This should be a scandal, but it isn’t. For years, people had lifted up Khost as an example of progress, but the reality is, outside of the city itself the war there hasn’t changed. Part of that is because the operational guys think there is some checklist they have to tick off to say they’re doing a good job—which to me indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what COIN is and how you go about actually connecting people to their government…

what’s so remarkable looking back on Khost over the last four years isn’t the few points of success, or of hope. It is of the grinding stagnation there

This is despite the changes in tactics, the wholesale public adaptation of COIN and the power of SURGING, this is despite the rapid increase in the ranks of the Afghan Army and National Police — not much has changed in a key province, and what gains are made will go away as Peak Foreign Forces has already passed and the US will begin pulling out combat units without replacing them in the next few months. 

Stalemates are a strategic success for local insurgents.  They will be there much longer than the trans-continentally deployed foreigners whose home societies are embracing counter-productive austerity. 

Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal argues that large initial withdrawal proponents should not argue that the costs of the occupation and counter-insurgency are too high for the strategic stagnation that the US and ISAF are seeing:

If all else fails civilian advisors could even play the trump card that nation building in the Hindu Kush is simply not in the national security interest of the United States, particularly now that bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is clearly on the run in Pakistan.

The point here is that the cost of the war is the least effective argument against the war, particularly since the President has said that the fight in Afghanistan is in the vital interest of the United States. Arguing about the money raises the idea that if we could afford to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul we should.

I disagree.  Strategy should be based upon gaining greater benefits than costs.  Costs are political, financial, geo-strategic, opportunity and real.  We are in a political environment where the American political elite is seeking austerity and savings.  Dropping $100 billion into Afghanistan, a country most Americans still can not easily find on a map, is contra-indicated when the end result is stagnation.  Arguments that the straetgy is a failure as local partnerships have not materialized as the Karzai inner circle is acting in their own interests instead of as passive puppets without agency, that there is limited security gains in large scale counter-insurgency operations, that counter-terrorism operations and their associated limited footprints can produce significant pressure against the few remaining far enemy/distant strike terrorists and dropping American mass political support for the policy are all arguments that the costs are too high for any security gains that could conceivable be achieved. 

Stagnation is failure for a counter-insurgent force, especially when the COIN operation is in an area of objectively tertiary interests for the United States. 

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