Feeling Thankfully Placid? I Can Fix That: Today's Af-Pak Reading

By James Fallows

During some period of alertness during the turkey-comatose weekend, you might consider reading an essay by Franklin "Chuck" Spinney -- my long-time friend and a former guest blogger -- about the situation in Afghanistan. (It's in Counterpunch. This should go without saying, but I have learned always to say: in endorsing one article from any site or publication, I am not necessarily endorsing everything that appears there.)

Here is how this one begins:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States.  To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over "who lost the Afghan War."

To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordersman's most recent situation report on the AF-PAK War, THE AFGHANISTAN- PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011... Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it -- at the very least, take a few minutes  to read the executive summary.

Now compare Cordesman's systematic, detailed, and workmanlike analysis to the bizarre obscurantism peddled one week later, on 22 November, co-authored by Michael O'Hanlon (Brookings Institution) and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (American Enterprise Institute) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, entitled Defining Victory in Afghanistan.

O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz posit the bizarre thesis that the admittedly less than successful outcome against the FARC guerrillas in Colombia is a favorable model for justifying continuing business as usual in Afghanistan. Viewed through the refractions of their Columbian lens, O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz conclude, "Our current exit strategy of reducing American troops to 68,000 by the end of next summer and transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 is working. In a war where the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, we need to stay patient and resolute."

Are O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz living on the same planet as Cordesman or do they live in some kind of parallel universe?

I submit it is latter. Here's why -

If you're interested so far, go to the site for more. Spinney is effectively in the "cut our losses" camp concerning Afghanistan, a political position occupied in the campaign only (to my knowledge) by Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. For the past five or six years now my instincts have put me in that same camp, including in skepticism about the buildup that President Obama announced two years ago. In my view, problems in Afghanistan trace almost irreversibly back to the disastrous 2002 decision to shift U.S. troops from that theater to preparations for (needless) war in Iraq. Like anyone's, my judgments can be wrong: for instance, the intervention in Libya has turned out better than I feared it would. But it is hard to see plausibly encouraging signs in reports from Afghanistan.

Also worth considering: on the general theme of how to make plans when outcomes are uncertain and evidence about the future is sketchy, see Richard Danzig's essay Driving in the Dark from the Center for a New American Security. It moves beyond assertion of "unknown unknowns" to offer practical suggestions for dealing with the certainly uncertain.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/feeling-thankfully-placid-i-can-fix-that-todays-af-pak-reading/249071/