Trade-Offs

The theme of my commentary on the Russo-Georgian War was the need for America to choose between grand strategies: If we're fighting a global war on terror that tends in practice to be concentrated in places like Afghanistan, I suggested, we can't simultaneously be going all in on a strategy of democratic enlargement that involves taking sides against Moscow in its Near Abroad. Others disagreed: Max Boot, for instance, was quick to downplay Russia's capacity to make life difficult for us if we were to kick off a serious proxy struggle in the Caucasus. For instance, he wrote, Moscow couldn't "send high-tech munitions to insurgents fighting American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq" without risking that the weapons would end up being used "by Islamic extremists within in its own borders." And so on.

At the time, this struck me as a distinctly ... unimaginative way of thinking about how and where the Russians might retaliate against the United States. If the Russian Army were bogged down in a nation-building effort in, say, Saskatchewan, I think a savvy American government would be able to find lots of way to make life steadily more difficult for them that stopped short of shipping surface-to-air missiles to the People's Army of Saskatoon. Like, say, making it awfully hard for them to resupply:

While McKiernan is quick to tell reporters that "Afghanistan is not Iraq", the program he outlines for the country looks a lot like the one adopted by military officers in Anbar province, where "insurgents" were broken off from al-Qaeda "terrorists" and brought into local governing coalitions ...

McKiernan faces obstacles in making his plan work. A Washington Post article of November 19 detailed these obstacles, focusing on Taliban attacks on the supply route into Afghanistan from Pakistan. But that's only a part of the problem. The other was caused by the Bush administration. "We should have alternative supply routes through the north and not have to rely on the roads from Pakistan," a senior serving army officer says, "but we can't get a northern route because the Bush administration pissed off the Russians in Georgia."

Negotiations with the Russians over a northern resupply route that would be place the 67,000 US and NATO soldiers at the end of "a secure tether" have been stalled, according to this officer. "This is typical of the White House, they can't see beyond tomorrow. They have never been able to plan ahead, to think through the consequences of their actions. They're so proud of themselves, and we're the ones who suffer."

This comes via Larison. Now you don't want to place too much stock in one officer's waspish comments, but it seems pretty clear that the U.S. and our allies would benefit from a stable northern supply line into Afghanistan, and it's clear as well that the Russians aren't exactly falling over themselves to lend a hand. Of course Boot might just retort that we can work around this problem, and that anyway our supply lines into Afghanistan are less important that the survival of democracy in Georgia. But I think this is a salutary reminder that there's at least something to be said for concentrating on winning the wars you have before you involve yourself in new ones.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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