The AfPak Dilemma: The Case For Muddling Through


I finally managed to write the column. It tries to sum up the somewhat scattered thoughts and arguments on the Dish as best I can:

Here are some of the factors we do not fully understand right now. Pakistan’s military is on the verge of a large offensive against the Taliban. We don’t know what the outcome of that will be. The election in Afghanistan is unresolved, with serious and credible allegations of fraud and the possibility of a run-off or any number of unforeseen developments. Again, we do not know the outcome of that.

Iraq, still home to almost 130,000 US troops, is far from stable and could descend into sectarian anarchy when the US leaves. There are some encouraging signs there especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inclusion of Sunni groups in his new coalition and an apparent resurgence of national unity as a theme in the current campaign. If Iraqis are finally ready to leave the past behind, if the bloody chaos of the worst years has shifted that national psyche, that would indeed be miraculous. Bloody civil wars can do that (it was true of the English civil war and the 30 years’ war): they can finally persuade a population that compromise really is better than the alternative. Once the general population believes that, and there is a halfway credible national government willing to support them, a pivot can occur. We may not be there in Iraq, but it would be insane, after the immense sacrifice and carnage of the past few years, to dismiss the possibility that disaster could be avoided.

Of course, anyone boldly predicting triumph in Iraq needs his head examined.

The truth is: we do not know the outcome of that either, and since the US has limited resources, and has already pummelled the troops beyond what most mortals could tolerate, Obama should be cautious about overextension in very volatile regions. Shifting a large number of troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan is a risk to Iraq and potentially a disastrous strategic call.

So what to do? In a moment of immense unpredictability and fluidity, it seems that muddling through for a while may be an unsatisfying but sensible option. Marc Lynch, as shrewd a foreign policy analyst as exists in Washington, put the case very well last week:

“Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can and try to figure out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part, which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved counterinsurgency tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an Al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.”

In other words, meticulously prepare for either the McChrystal counterinsurgency surge or a more low-key counterterrorism campaign. But right now, hold on to see what emerges after the results of the imminent Pakistani military campaign in Waziristan and after we know more about the post-election position in Afghanistan.

The full column is here.