Exum’s Challenge: Game On!

As the dust was settling on what has been glibly called the “Rolling Stan” affair, it became apparent that the biggest damage that reporter Michael Hastings wrought was not in exposing Gen. Stan McChrystal and his staff for their impolitic grumblings, but in challenging the very strategy of the war itself.

More specifically, he raised the notion that not only is Afghanistan a mess, but that combat troops are confused and frustrated with the deployment of COIN (counterinsurgency) in the field. They feel the “population-centric” rules of engagement have hindered their ability to hunt down and kill the enemy. According to the soldiers themselves, they feel tied down and exposed.

Washington COIN-pusher and front-man Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security picked up on this early and offered this telling retort:

“What, pray tell, is Hastings’ alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about – or even discuss – the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.”

Exum, who reacts with the unease of someone who realizes his think-tank festooned its entire image with the red, white, and blue bunting of a losing strategy, has been torn lately between refashioning himself as an “open-minded” pragmatist and reverting back to his bulldoggish defense of COIN. But what of this claim that “legions” have declined to discuss the costs and benefits of withdrawal?

Yes, Mr. Exum, “some do” discuss it. So, in the spirit of moving things out of your echo chamber and into the world of productive discourse, I ask, not unlike the auspicious appeal by Hollywood’s WOPR supercomputer circa 1983, “Shall we play a game?”

Through interviews, published analysis, and media reports, we are able to piece together a defensible picture of what the costs and benefits of full withdrawal would be  – as well as the costs and benefits of the current trajectory and pursuing yet another modified course, otherwise known as the “Biden Plan,” a counter-terror approach that uses a lighter military “footprint” but continues to employ aerial bombing and targeted raids by special forces insertion teams on the ground.

The Mission According to Obama

In the latest incarnation of the mission, Obama declared last winter that the “overarching goal” is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

To “meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

Since top U.S. officials have just recently admitted there are only some 50 to 100 so-called al-Qaeda still in Afghanistan, and “more than 300” al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the prevailing exigency of this war would seem to be in question. The problems arise in executing the current “objectives.” Respected analysts, as well as official Pentagon reports, have noted that the Taliban is actually getting stronger, and depending on who you talk to, is active in anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the country.

And while Pentagon officials recently told Congress they were “on track” to building viable Afghan security forces, NATO is far behind goals of recruiting 300,000 by October. Attrition is still incredibly high, and the police remain the most hated institution in the country.

As for the Karzai government, there is no illusion we are making headway into “strengthening its capacity.” The U.S. is just propping up an animated corpse, one that has allegedly facilitated the flight of some $3 billion or more in foreign aid and drug money out of the country and into Karzai’s friends’ and families’ secret bank accounts in Dubai. Add that to the drug smuggling that pays for the poppy palaces and the Taliban shakedown rackets, and the situation appears no better than two years ago – and maybe worse.

Meanwhile, the major counterinsurgency campaigns since Obama took office, the Helmand insertion last summer and Marjah (Operation Moshtarak), along with the gloomy prospects of the looming Kandahar operation, have been major disappointments and dark omens for the viability of COIN writ large. If these actions were supposed to help sell the Long War to Americans back home, they failed miserably: as of last month, 58 percent of Americans agree with the July 2011 withdrawal timeline set by President Obama, despite critics’ increasingly agitated charges that it is unrealistic and counterproductive.

But only 7 percent believe the military should disengage any earlier. In fact, it doesn’t seem to occur to most people that full withdrawal is a serious option. The Washington spin has been so effective that it’s made disengagement a mockery, blacking it out from all discussion in the major media. But more military experts are talking about it – in private, and more frequently, on the record – which probably explains Exum’s prickly response to Rolling Stone.

 The Costs and Benefits of Full Withdrawal

Antiwar.com spoke with a number of national security policy and military experts and found there are compelling arguments for leaving, and more importantly, in these experts’ view, they far outweigh the costs of removing our troops from the region.

 “We went through a similar experience for the last seven or eight years in Vietnam. We were constantly involved in these push-pull exercises to get out of Vietnam and all the same arguments were employed,” said retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, who successfully led a cavalry battle group in the first Gulf War, which he wrote about in the recently published in Battle of 73 Easting. Macgregor has been a tough critic of the current war policy, and as a former West Point classmate of McChrystal, was quoted in Hastings’ Rolling Stone report.

Of the cost of staying in Afghanistan, Macgregor said the war is “simply a bottomless pit for our resources,” which to the rest of the world is “a wonderful place to pin down the American military establishment, even better if you are able to divert the attention of the American military establishment. That is what we have done. We have completely redefined the posture of the Army and the Marines to prepare them for things that don’t count, for conflicts that are irrelevant,” he added, referring to the institutional shift away from conventional to so-called “irregular warfare” based on the Petraeus Doctrine of Long War counterinsurgency.

Sure, Obama “faces political trouble if he is seen to have ‘cut and run,’” but “I want to see a hundred-meter dash out of that place – that is the intelligent thing to do.”

“Costs” can be defined many ways. In American lives, as of July 4, there have been 1,152 military fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001, and that’s not counting casualties among American-paid contractors, who now number some 70,000 on the ground. The military has also incurred 14,936 injuries in Afghanistan, according to statistics issued three months ago [.pdf]. This year the U.S. will appropriate close to $170 billion in funding for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention billions in non-military aid. According to researchers, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the U.S. a trillion dollars since 9/11 and could reach an estimated $5 trillion in direct and indirect expenses – including long-term veterans’ health care and lifetime disability payments – if these military interventions continue through 2017.

Then there are the costs to the Afghan and Pakistani people. While the counterinsurgency is supposed to be “winning hearts and minds,” the wars have killed upward of 32,000 civilians since 2001 in Afghanistan, while U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed approximately 700 civilians in 2009 alone, according to Pakistani officials. Poverty, desperation, and corruption continue to fester in both countries, fueled by instability and a stream of aid and military resources into the region, the benefits of which never seem to reach the people the West is supposed to be “winning over.”

Even targeted, “population-centric” operations fail to meet expectations. According to a survey by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), some 61 percent of residents in Marjah said they felt more “more negative about NATO forces than before [Operation Moshtarak].”

“The legitimate grievances of the people of Marjah are being exploited by the Taliban, who will seek to recruit and radicalize the regions angry young men. Of those interviewed, 95% believe more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year. 78% of the respondents were often or always angry, and 45% of those stated they were angry at the NATO occupation, civilian casualties and night raids.”

“There is a mountain of evidence showing that large-scale U.S. (or Western) military presence in the Islamic world serves to anger and alienate the people who we are trying to influence,” Boston University professor and respected COIN critic Andrew Bacevich told Antiwar.com. “Rather than enhancing stability, our wars do just the reverse. They are literally counterproductive.”

So There Is a Negative Cost to Staying. What About the Benefits of Leaving?

“Objectively, there is no downside to leaving. There is a huge downside to staying,” charged Gordon Adams, a U.S. foreign policy professor at American University and fellow at the Stimson Center. “But that is objectively – that’s not politically. The problem the Obama administration is having is political: they can’t afford another loss. Their staying in office depends on them looking like they’re winning.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he and other experts told Antiwar.com. Disengagement doesn’t mean just pulling up stakes and leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. As Bacevich puts it, “People who argue for extending the current war invariably imply that the only alternative to what we are doing now is to do nothing – to stand aside and allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to run wild. This is a bogus argument.” Other options include, of course, the aforementioned Biden Plan, helping Karzai to negotiate terms with the Taliban upon our exit, contracting with local third parties to “manage the level of jihadist activity,” or the outright bribing of the enemy (which was employed when Sunnis insurgents were bought off to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq).

Some critics dismiss the Biden Plan because it does not eliminate the enemy’s most effective recruiting tool: it keeps urban house raids and American detention centers alive in Afghanistan and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan. “I think the idea of the counter-terrorism campaign is quite unfocused and doesn’t address the realities in Afghanistan now,” said investigative journalist and author Gareth Porter. “To have special-ops forces that do arguably more harm than good, which we’ve seen over and over again in Afghanistan, to go after just 50 to 100 al-Qaeda, doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Meanwhile, the military has been loath to negotiate with the Taliban leadership because NATO is clearly not in a position of strength. But Porter and others suggested that Karzai and the Taliban appear willing to come to terms, to eventually end the fighting, to manage their separate authorities and political powers, and to even keep foreign fighters out, with minimal U.S. influence. To that end we must remove the American military presence – which right now includes almost 220,000 military personnel and contractors, and an untold number of bases and outposts, airfields, and facilities.

“The only mission our forces should have in Afghanistan is what we call ‘sanctuary denial’ – not establishing Western-style institutions, or forcing these ethnically distinct people to live together,” said Macgregor. “So you talk to people, make deals and do business with them to keep [al-Qaeda out]. And you don’t need a single solitary combat soldier or Marine on the ground to do it.”

As for U.S. interests, disengagement will save American lives and reduce the incentive for terror in the region. The military can regroup, rethink, and bring itself back to health. “If we suddenly had to face a real enemy in the field – a real organized enemy with real infantry, a real air force,” charged Macgregor, “we’d be in serious trouble, we aren’t prepared for it, we aren’t equipped for it anymore.”

Critics Say the Cost of Leaving Is Too Great. Are They Right?

Though they say they favor negotiations with the Taliban in some vague fashion (and on their terms), the Washington national security elite are still clearly ambivalent about disengagement. Here are some of their key arguments, along with counterpoints from the experts I interviewed:

Neighboring, nuclear Pakistan is already weak and unstable and will implode if we leave. Answer: “I argue the opposite. The best thing we can do is dramatically reduce our profile in the region,” said Macgregor. The Afghan-Pakistani dynamics are complicated. No one can say with any certainty how eliminating the drone attacks – which have increased with debatable effectiveness under Obama – and the absence of a foreign military presence over the border will affect extremist elements in Pakistan, or whether it will matter to Afghanistan’s own security.

If we leave, the Taliban will topple the central government and reclaim Afghanistan. Answer: For this there is no certainty. Some experts say the Taliban is gaining momentum as a controlling, often terrorizing force throughout the country, but is still too weak to expect much more than political leverage in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal. “I think the notion that the Taliban is going to sweep into power is somewhat misleading,” said Macgregor.

“If you do have an exit by the United States … it would leave the northern half of the country still very much under the control of people who are anti-Taliban and the Taliban would have to fight a very major war to conquer those provinces. I’m guessing the Taliban would rather have a settlement with Karzai in order to gain some international legitimacy,” added Porter.

On the other hand, the Karzai government could collapse under the weight of its own corruption and lack of legitimacy. One regional expert told Antiwar.com, “I am extremely wary about making predictions,” however, “I do feel comfortable in saying that the Afghan government will remain corrupt, abusive and incompetent and that local security forces will remain the same” after a U.S. withdrawal.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, had this to say about the current Taliban dynamic:

“A number of fighters might have joined for the money that is in it. But this is neither their only nor generally the major motive of the Taliban. They reject the current corrupt and inefficient government and fight what they see as a foreign occupation. This is shared by many Afghans, even those who do not sympathize with the Taliban. (Many of them are not so much against the presence of foreign troops and advisers but against how they dominate decision-making.) We should not believe our anti-terrorism psy-ops and understand that the Taliban are a political movement with political aims. Such a movement will compromise when serious talks are held. Some Taliban know that they cannot rule Afghanistan on their own. We heard this discussion amongst Taliban in 2008 and 2009, but the surge closed their ranks again.”

Al-Qaeda will be emboldened by a U.S. withdrawal from the region. Answer: Symbolically, yes, the so-called “global jihad” will be juiced by a U.S. retreat. “The jihadis will celebrate … but it will be short-lived because they will have lost their mobilizing force,” predicted Macgregor. On a practical level, since there are no more than 400 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, there is no way to tell whether withdrawal would help or harm their comeback in the long-term.

The Afghan people will suffer from a return of extremist forces to power. Answer: The Afghan people are suffering now. Afghanistan is ranked as the second most corrupt country in the world (next to Somalia). The GDP is hovering around $12 billion, much of which comes from the illicit opium trade. The majority of Afghans are living in poverty. They remain victims of continued factional infighting, ruthless warlords, drug addiction, and violence from the continued foreign military occupation – so much so that many have said they prefer the predictability of Taliban rule to the uncertainty of being in the crosshairs of the insurgency and the lack of a working government.

Disengagement would mean the Afghan reformers who made gains when the Taliban was kicked out in 2001 will have to find a way to improve conditions and prevent a return to extremism without a foreign military occupation. It does not mean that USAID, international assistance, and especially non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – many of which have been in-country since the 1980s – will fold up and go away.

It will mean that Pakistan will have to win its own battle with extremism without American drone attacks.

“The only lasting security in [Afghanistan and Pakistan] lies in their hands,” said Adams, “not ours.”

“What is saddening to me is we cannot shape outcomes in another country. Since World War II Americans have believed in the myth… but it is clear that our ability actually shape things is very limited. We still end up with white sand flowing through our fingers.”

But supporters of the Petraeus Doctrine continue to engage in increasingly shopworn equivocations, acknowledging that the situation is quite dire, if not impossible, yet offering more and weaker reasons for staying. Establishment thinkers Anthony Cordesman and Stephen Biddle both issued recent briefs to that end, demanding the U.S. tough it out, albeit with modified goals for success.

But there seems to be an element of fatigue and a growing lack of imagination, too. Aside from maintaining a bulwark against “al-Qaeda and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism,” Cordesman suggested a key reason we stay is  “we are already there.”

“The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow ‘zero base’ history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we.”

He is a ‘prisoner of past action,’” Porter charged, “and I agree the [U.S.] national security state is a prisoner of past action – they have made themselves prisoners and that is their interest. But it is not our interest. That is a very revealing quote.”

The bottom line is that the burden of proof has been placed on the critics of war when it should be up to Andrew Exum and others to make better cases for why the U.S. military should stay in Afghanistan.

Far from “cutting and running,” withdrawal could be the tactical and strategic change we have been waiting for. It is time for a fair fight over the direction of this war. Here’s to making a modest start.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.