We Can Tolerate A Lot in Afghanistan

Bruce Riedel and Mike O’Hanlon write:

Afghanistan policy is in crisis, at least in the United States. With Osama bin Laden now dead, some are wondering whether it’s time to declare this mission accomplished — or with Afghanistan so troubled, perhaps it’s mission impossible? In fact, it is mission incomplete: The Afghanistan mission is going worse than we had all hoped, but better than many understand. With┬ápatience and perseverance, we can still struggle to a tolerable outcome.

I’ll pass on the snark this time around, and make a serious point. I think the key analytical problem with the Riedel and O’Hanlon piece, and indeed with their entire view on the war, is that there is anything that can happen in Afghanistan that is “intolerable.” From my perspective not only is almost any outcome tolerable, I would argue that even preventing the worst case outcome is not worth a fraction of the blood and treasure we’re expending in Afghanistan.

If we left tomorrow, and immediately the Karzai regime was swept from power and immediately the Taliban rode into Kabul triumphant, how bad would that be? Imagine further that they immediately invited al Qaeda and/or affiliates to set up camp. Would you be willing to spend $100 billion and the lives of 1,000 Americans in the next year to prevent that? If so, why? Couldn’t we easily mitigate the consequences of that development through kinetic counter-terrorism, surveillance, and passive defenses at a fraction of that cost? Of course we could.

The 9/11 attacks didn’t occur because they were impossible to prevent. They occurred because we were paying insufficient attention to the problem.

But that worst case is not by any means a likely outcome. Even we withdrew tomorrow, we could still fund Karzai. Still give him equipment. Still provide intelligence support. Still wage a drone campaign (assuming we get some regional buy-in). Still even provide a training function. There is no reason to assume this would be insufficient to keep him in power. Indeed, the case for that is, I would argue, stronger than the alternative which is that somehow over the next 18-30 months the insurgency will be defeated.

The point is, the worst case in Afghanistan is surprising tolerable if you spend any time working through the mitigation options. But the more likely case, a U.S.-funded and trained regime in Kabul holds on in a stalemated civil war, is even more tolerable from our perspective.

We already have a tolerable outcome. Even the worst case is tolerable because Afghanistan is an irrelevant, strategic backwater, and we already have in place mitigation options that would cost a fraction of the cost of a continued presence there.

And, of course, this is why many analysts end up trying to haul Pakistan into the mix. You can’t rationally defend the Afghanistan commitment in terms of costs and benefits without raising the specter of Pakistani nukes. But as I’ve argued many times, the argument that our mission in Afghanistan is stabilizing to Pakistan makes absolutely no sense. If anything, we are destabilizing Pakistan by pushing the insurgents across the border, by promoting tensions within the Pakistani national security apparatus, by radicalizing at least part of the population with air strikes and occasional incidents with Pakistani troops, and by encouraging Pakistani paranoia about possible Indian influence in Afghanistan.

The case for continued involvement in Afghanistan rests more on an effort to redeem poor analysis and advocacy in the past than in does on any rational analysis of the present.

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