The Afghan Debate (or Clash of the Open Letters)

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The National Security Network has a nice rundown of the back-and-forth between liberals, realists and neoconservatives over Afghanistan. This jumped out at me:

Unfortunately, largely absent from the debate is a credible voice among the conservative opposition in Congress, which is now dominated by neoconservative thinking. After bungling the war on Afghanistan in favor of Iraq, neoconservatives have little credibility. Their calls for a massive, never-ending military commitment that will somehow turn Afghanistan into a democratic Valhalla reflect the same misguided thinking and over-militarized approach that we saw over the last eight years.

I'm not sure how you can characterized the opposition's approach as "overly militarized" when the Obama administration sent more troops into Afghanistan and is having an open debate in the press over whether to send even more. Whatever else counter-insurgency is, it is a military concept (albeit one that includes a number of civilian instruments). That's about as "militarized" as you can get, no?

Moving to another heated battlefield, we have the clash of the open Afghanistan letters. The first volley, fired by neoconservatives (and Sarah Palin) is available here, urging President Obama not to accept defeat in Afghanistan and to surge whatever forces are needed into the country. Now comes this letter from the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, advising the president to focus on killing al Qaeda and not state building in Afghanistan.

With all this as context I think there's a pretty clear danger that the Obama administration is going to be caught in a dangerous muddle. They clearly believe that building some kind of capable Afghan state is in our interest, they have an increasingly vocal military urging additional troops, and they have a fairly influential assortment of pundits urging a full-bore counter-insurgency effort (with all the rhetorical restraint and nuance for which they are justly famous). On the other hand, Democrats are clearly loosing patience, public support is eroding and realists (including, reportedly, Defense Secretary Gates) inside the administration and without are airing concerns. The temptation must surely be to split the difference: wage a counter-insurgency with the newly arrived forces we have, but not add anymore and risk provoking a wider domestic backlash.

That, I think, is the worst of all possible outcomes. It's public knowledge that nation building and counter-insurgency requires large numbers of troops - far, far more than we have now in Afghanistan. If we are going to attempt such an exercise, better to do it right. And if we're not, then we should reorient our strategy with haste.

(AP Photos)

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