Doubting Afghanistan

A compelling case for continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can be made, but only by answering these 10 questions.

I have become a skeptic of the continued American involvement in Afghanistan. Like many skeptics of the policy, I am willing to be convinced to change my views. But unfortunately, most of the arguments in favor of an escalation of the conflict provide unconvincing strategic rationales. I believe that a compelling case for increasing our commitment must be able to provide convincing answers to these 10 questions.

(1) Why does the possibility that al Qaeda might establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan justify a multi-year commitment of American forces, while the reality of an al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan justifies nothing more than financial support to the Pakistani government and occasional Predator strikes?

(2) Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable without a significant American presence on the ground?  Or might some other form of aid to the Karzai regime be sufficient to stave off that eventuality?

(3) What precisely is the nature of the risk a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would pose to the stability of Pakistan? From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and yet by most indications, Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals then than now. What has changed to make Afghanistan now the lynchpin on which the stability of Pakistan rests?

(4) The escalation of our commitment to Afghanistan is intimately connected to the acceptance of population-centric counter-insurgency theory popularized by General Petraeus in Iraq.  How does this sort of campaign actually contribute to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan? And if the goal is simply to dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur, why is there any reason to assume that the Afghan government would be able to utilize this space more effectively than from early 2002 to early 2005 when there was only limited Taliban activity in the country?

(5) Is it possible to conceive a political process in Afghanistan that will provide lasting stability that does not require some negotiations with the Taliban? And if not, what sorts of concessions might be acceptable given the stated American interests in the country?

(6) Many proponents of escalation in Afghanistan highlight the American moral obligation to the Afghan people, in particular to Afghan women certain to be oppressed by a Taliban resurgence and the large number of men and women who have worked with American forces who would likely be targeted for retribution. What is the nature of this moral obligation? It is absolute? Are there steps we could take to mitigate the consequences short of providing a permanent guarantee of human rights in the country?

(7) Many of the steps we are encouraging the Afghans to undertake imply tremendous long-term costs. Increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan army, institutionalize government control and services over the whole of the country, rooting out corruption and drug trafficking are all costly measures. How will the Afghan government pay for all these commitments in the future? Will the United States be required to continue to fund Afghan government operations to the tune of several billion dollars annually indefinitely? Are we, in short, encouraging a gap between increased Afghan government obligations and likely Afghan government revenues?

(8) What is the difference between the likely future risk posed by Afghanistan versus that posed by Somalia or other states with active violent Islamist movements?

(9) How significant is the assumption that regardless of the strategic logic for American involvement, we will likely remain because an attack on the United States emanating from Afghanistan would be a disaster for any incumbent president's political standing? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of strategic risks or understandable domestic political risks?

(10) How significant is the fact that the "big three" -- Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar -- remain at large and that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan might allow them to return? If all three were to die, would that change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan? 



You Ain't Seen Pirates Yet

The disappearance of the Arctic Sea highlighted the growing problem of piracy -- and demonstrated that the world's navies can't stop the coming surge of attacks.

This week, the Russian Navy found the Arctic Sea, a timber freighter that mysteriously disappeared at the end of July after passing through the English Channel. The Maltese-registered, Russian-crewed ship ended up 300 miles off the coast of Cape Verde -- a spectacular act of piracy and one of the first in European waters since the 1700s.

The incident has shaken sailors and governments. This week, for instance, the Swedish Shipowners' Association went so far as to remind its members that they faced a real pirate threat, advising them to adopt the same safety procedures in home waters as they do elsewhere.

But they don't know the half of it. Naval commanders and ship owners alike are bracing themselves for an imminent surge in attacks -- and the world's navies are in no position to stop it.

Much of the anticipated uptick is expected to come when the monsoon season ends in the Horn of Africa. The Maritime Security Center, run by the EU Naval Force, warns mariners to expect "a continuing spreading and a rapid increase of piracy in the Indian Ocean directly after the monsoon" and "a moderate increase" in the Gulf of Aden once the rains and strong winds that have deterred the marauders dissipate in late August.

This September surge will come on top of an unprecedented rise of piracy in just the past few years. According to a recent study by the International Maritime Bureau, the number of attacks between January and June more than doubled -- to 240 -- year on year. Although the rise is largely due to well-publicized efforts of Somali pirates, the phenomenon is global -- as the Arctic Sea incident demonstrates. In Nigeria alone, there were at least three dozen attacks in the second quarter; attacks have doubled in Southeast Asia and the Far East. Worldwide, in just the first six months of 2009, 78 vessels were boarded, 31 successfully hijacked, and 75 fired upon. In the same period, 561 crew members were taken hostage, 19 injured, 7 kidnapped, and 6 killed. Eight remain missing.

It is increasingly clear that naval power is not going to stop the spread of piracy anytime soon. Take the case of the waters off Somalia. No fewer than three dozen ships from three powerful multinational forces patrol the coast: the EU's Operation Atalanta, the U.S.-coordinated Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, and NATO's Operation Allied Protector, plus independent flotillas from China, France, India, Malaysia, and Russia, among others. Despite this unprecedented mobilization, the number of attacks by Somali pirates this year already exceeds the total number recorded last year.

Why such helplessness?

First, modern piracy is a sophisticated enterprise; pirates have proven themselves to be highly adaptable. Turkish Rear Adm. Caner Bener, commander of CTF 151, acknowledged last month, "While our ability to deter and disrupt attacks has improved over time, we are constantly adapting the way we do our business as the pirates adapt and modify their tactics." As the massive hunt for the Arctic Sea highlighted with respect to the Russian fleet, it is easier to look for one missing boat than to prevent its seizure.

Second, no less a figure than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has pointed out that to cover all the expanses of sea at risk of piracy would require 1,000 ships -- three times the size of the entire U.S. Navy. And naval forces aren't what they used to be. The United States has an aging, shrinking fleet and has slashed its shipbuilding budget. With the exception of China, where the People's Liberation Army Navy is in the midst of a major expansion, other navies are dwindling even faster thanks to recession-necessitated cuts.

Third, even if there were enough naval vessels to cover the entire world's piracy "hot spots" -- to say nothing of the problem of coordinating their commands -- the effort would hardly be cost-effective. Piracy strikes less than 1 percent of shipping vessels, and the price tag, financial and otherwise, of keeping naval forces on semipermanent patrol far from home ports would be extraordinary.

Fourth, as I pointed out earlier this year, piracy is a crime of opportunity nourished by both negative (e.g., lack of governance) and positive (e.g., the fabulous ransoms that have been paid) factors. Unfortunately for merchant ships that must transit near the coasts of Somalia -- and, increasingly, elsewhere -- both are found in great abundance.

Fifth, if piracy is, as Martin Murphy demonstrates in his comprehensive new tome Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, a land-based problem requiring a solution onshore, the reluctance on the part of the United States or any major power to get involved in anything even resembling "nation-building" in pirate lairs such as Somalia renders any naval action even less sustainable.

Given that a military solution to the piracy plague isn't going to happen, governments and commercial shippers need to begin thinking less about political posturing and more about practical, sustainable solutions. And they need to do so quickly because not only is pirate season just around the corner, but the predators' range is encroaching more and more on vital sea lanes.