I've been trying to make sense of the recent news from
Afghanistan and Pakistan, so let me share my musings here. There's no question that the news from
the past week or so is encouraging. The Marine-led effort to clear the Taliban out of the Afghan city of
Marjah appears to be going well (despite some obvious mishaps, like the
accidental killing of a dozen Afghan civilians by an errant rocket attack), and
the capture of a top Pakistani Taliban commander is likely to weaken those
forces and suggests that the Pakistani government is taking this fight
These are encouraging signs, and we should all hope that
progress like this continues.
Whether you supported Obama's escalation of the war or not, the obvious
way to end America's costly and distracting efforts in Central Asia is to
achieve a rapid victory that enables us to withdraw. I'm still not optimistic about our long-term
prospects (or convinced that it is as vital a contest as others think) but I'd be delighted
to be proved wrong on this one.
That said, there are several reasons why it's premature to
be hoisting the "Mission Accomplished" sign at this stage (and to be fair, I
haven't seen anyone doing that yet).
First, most of the accounts we are getting from Marjah are
from official sources or embedded journalists, and these initial reports often
tend to highlight achievements unless the operation is a complete
disaster. In short, there may be a
bit of an upward bias in the reports we've seen so far.
Second, it is always difficult to know whether a tactical
success is strategically significant, especially in this sort of
engagement. There was never much
question about the Marines' ability to expel the Taliban, the only question was
how much resistance they would face and what the casualty ratios might be. Casualties do not seem to be that high
on either side, however, which suggests that many (though not all) of the Taliban have slipped
away to fight another day. That
problem has always been one of our major strategic
challenges, especially given the porous Afghan/Pakistani border.
How can the United States and its allies pacify the entire country, when the
adversary can flee and wait us out?
Third, as others have already noted, the real issues are 1)
will Afghan security forces will be able to hold the area after the Marines
move on, and 2) can the various groups and factions in Afghanistan achieve a workable
political formula that will stabilize the country and (eventually) permit the
United States and NATO to withdraw? Unfortunately, as Juan Cole notes today, there are still good reasons to be skeptical about the
ongoing effort to train reliable Afghan police and security forces. And there
are still few signs of genuine political reconciliation (or even compromise).
What I can't decide is whether the capture of Mullah
Baradar is a step forward or something more ambiguous. On the one hand, it's hard not to
be pleased by signs that Pakistan is taking the counter-Taliban campaign more
seriously, and equally hard to be displeased when a top Taliban military
commander is no longer in the field (and is presumably giving up useful
information while in custody). But
as the Times notes today, this development
may also give Pakistan a bigger voice in the deliberations over Afghanistan,
and its past support for the Afghan Taliban hasn't always been
constructive (at least, not from the U.S. point of view).
The lesson I draw from all this -- admittedly
speculative -- is that U.S. military efforts in Central Asia need to supplemented
by even more energetic efforts at regional diplomacy. We don't have the military forces, staying power, cultural
insight, or influence to play unilateral "kingmaker" in that part of the world,
and we ought to be putting as much of the burden on regional actors as we
can. So it may be a good
thing if the Pakistanis now have a more credible claim to a place at the table,
provided we seize the opportunity and are open to a wide range of
possibilities. Paging Ambassador Holbrooke?
The key thing to remember is that we ultimately don't care very
much who is running Afghanistan or Pakistan, provided that whoever is in charge
isn't giving anti-American terrorists free rein to attack the United States,
and in the case of Pakistan, provided they are maintaining reliable control
over its nuclear arsenals. Helping the regional actors work out a modus vivendi
may be our best strategy, even if the outcome doesn't conform perfectly to our
own ideals or political values.
So I see the past week or so as somewhat encouraging, but I'm not
breaking out the champagne yet. And neither should anyone else.
UPDATE: In my haste this AM, I mistakenly referred to the captured
Taliban official, Mullah Baradar, as a member of the Pakistani
Taliban. That’s wrong: he is/was of course part of the Afghan
Taliban (though he was hiding out in Pakistan before he was
captured). My bad. And I'm still not sure what it tells us about
Pakistan's overall aims at this point.
A reader also challenged whether it makes sense to refer to Marjah as a city. Wikipedia gives its population as 85,000 or so, swelling to 125,000 if you include the surrounding areas, and Radio Free Europe described it as a "large village." CNN used the term “city” in a recent background story, and the video found here
makes it look like either term would be appropriate. So I’ll stand by
my original use of the word, but would happily defer to anyone who’s
actually been there and has a different and well-informed view.
For additional “musings” on what all this might mean, see here.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images