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August 10, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep In Action

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Anthony Cordesman, writing in the Times of London, leads with a conclusion that many of his readers may not embrace if he put it at the end of his column:

In Afghanistan Nato/ISAF faces challenges that go far beyond the normal limits of counter-insurgency and military strategy. It must carry out the equivalent of armed nation building, and simultaneously defeat the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

That’s the first and the last time the word "al-Qaeda" appears in the column, and mentioning "al-Qaeda" is the closest Cordesman — a military analyst for whom I have a ton of respect — comes to discussing the actual U.S. interests at stake with escalation. (For an actual discussion of them, see Day Three of the Abu Muqawama Dialogues.) Conclusion assumed, Cordesman lays out a series of requirements necessary for… well, for something. They include:

– up to 45,000 new U.S. troops

– reducing or eliminating the caveats NATO countries place on their troops’ operations in Afghanistan

– eliminating not only the Taliban but the "control and influence" of the Hekmatyar and Haqqani networks that are part of the insurgent syndicate

– bankroll and train the expansion of the Afghan police and Army to a total end-strength of 400,000 by 2014

– actively confront the corruption of the Afghan government, including "bypass[ing] the corrupt, provide direct aid at district and local level, and reward[ing] honest Afghan officials and officers"

– massively reforming the international aid effort so that countries deliver on the money they promise Afghanistan

– "Limiting the threat from Pakistan, Iran and other states"

Oh, just that? Cordesman further writes of the need to "define victory in achievable terms," such as:

a reasonable level of security and stability for the Afghan people; a decent standard of living by current Afghan standards; and the end of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for international terrorism.

If these are U.S. interests at stake, then Cordesman’s first two definitions are means to the ultimate end of the third: ending Afghanistan as a sanctuary for international terrorism. Well, then: mission accomplished. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the current sanctuary for international terrorism, and the two on the come-up are Yemen and Somalia. John Brennan said on Thursday — if you blinked, you missed it — that Afghanistan is a war to stop the country from going back to being a sanctuary for international terrorism.

Even if you accept the premise that population-centric counterinsurgency is necessary for counterterrorism success — and if al-Qaeda is more interested in Pakistan than Afghanistan, that means that Afghanistan is a staging ground for us, not them, in the current confrontation — nothing within that premise implies a nation-building effort. Pushing the Afghanistan government into a position of greater provision of services is not the same thing as building that capacity for it. The only way you get there is through mission creep. 

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