Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Rock and a Hard Choice

Last week the CATO Institute held its conference on the subject of Afghanistan and what the U.S. should do in the ongoing war there. The panel and conference were moderated by Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Panel members included Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute and co-author of Escaping the 'Graveyard of Empires': A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan; Celeste Ward, Senior Defense Analyst at the RAND Corp.; Patrick M. Cronin, Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University; Robert Naiman, National Coordinator, Just Foreign Policy; and Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute, and co-author of Escaping the 'Graveyard of Empires'. You can see a podcast of the event at the CATO website. The two most striking points of the conference were the surprising degree of civility and the agreement that we need to do something different in Afghanistan (though without unanimity on what we should do differently) and we needed to start doing this something different soon.

My own thinking on the subject has recently been influenced by Death of a Myth by Bob Snelson on General Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, published in 2005. I was struck by the author’s point that Custer’s battlefield decisions reflected how little he in fact knew or understood (beyond the tactical level) about the Native American peoples against whom he was making war. The army’s objective in this expedition was to attack the Sioux and the Cheyenne until they either moved onto the established U.S. government Indian reservations, or were annihilated. In essence, the U.S. Government had decided to use its military resources to compel these tribes to abandon their traditional way of life and its associated values and mores. Custer knew that the Indians would attempt to evade contact and combat with his force unless they perceived some advantage in fighting or a strong threat to the village and tribe that had to be countered. This understanding appears to be what led Custer to keep dividing his small command in order to cast a wide net that would force the warriors to come out fight.

The conflict between America’s Native peoples fighting to preserve their traditional way of life and an American government determined to see them acculturated or eliminated lasted for decades. It in fact resulted in the destruction of much of the traditional ways of Native Americans while many of the survivors were denied full membership in American society and ended up marginalized in their own homeland.

The United States deployed military forces to Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors. Having brought down the Taliban regime, the efforts of the U.S. and its Allies moved away from military confrontation with and defeat of residual Taliban and Al Qaeda forces and forces were even removed from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq for the new war there. Our forces and assets remaining in Afghanistan became increasingly focused on social engineering and national building issues with the general ambition of building up a modern western-style nation state – to the detriment of Afghan elements still clinging to the more traditional system based upon clan and tribe. In the view of many Afghans, the U.S. goal is to compel them to abandon their traditions, their religion, and their entire culture.

It is increasingly clear that eight years after U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan, the American people are unwilling to see the U.S. increase or prolong its commitment of time and resources to further push for any long term reshaping of that country. The Afghans themselves appear at least if not more reluctant to accept the sweeping changes pushed for by the U.S. and its allies, such as the elimination of poppy cultivation and full equality for women, among other things. Against the background of conflict between Al Qaeda/Taliban and the U.S. and its allies, too many Afghans are choosing the former as being less of a threat to traditional values and way of life. We need to decide that our most important objective is to deny Al Qaeda any sanctuary or presence in Afghanistan that would contribute to its terrorist plans and operations. Everything else must be considered a secondary and more long term goal. For the immediate future, the U.S. needs to decide now exactly what resources and forces it can commit and for how long – and adjust its goals accordingly.