To Afghanistan, and en masse! The evolution of the situation in Iraq and the campaign for the American presidential elections in November have led John McCain and Barack Obama to go ahead with a series of important proposals in relation to Afghanistan in the last couple of weeks.
McCain defended that the U.S. and NATO should substantially reinforce their military contingents and adopt more ambitious policies in relation to Afghanistan. On the other hand, in an international tour which led him from Afghanistan to Berlin, Obama argued that the U.S. should practice a policy of “more for more” with the government of Kabul – more resources from the U.S. and NATO and more action on behalf of the Afghani government in order to better the lives of the people. Obama promised that one of his first acts as president would be to send at least two brigades (7,000 troops) to Afghanistan. In the Pentagon, the military higher-ups hope that these promises be kept as speedily as possible.
Both McCain’s and Obama’s proposals show that 2009 will be the year of Afghanistan. The problem is that the promise of a full force return of the American military to the country is highly problematic to the majority of European countries. On the one side, there is the desire to embrace the new American administration and the commemorations of NATO’s 60th anniversary, marking the most successful politico-military alliance in history, which has elected Afghanistan as their principle mission. On the other, there is a profound reluctance of the European capitals to increase their military contingents in the country and in altering the rules of engagement within their units.
The Americans may have entered into a “more for more” phase in Afghanistan, but the Europeans are decidedly in a “less for less” one. The European “less for less” hides a lack of means and, principally, a lack of political will to fight a long, painful and savage war far from their frontiers. To the eyes of the European electorate, Afghanistan has been a unilateral military operation for the past few years. In other words, an operation where there should not have been battles, dead, or wounded, and one in which the financial costs were low, the enemy did not vote and the population thanked us for our commitment and effort. This fantasy is in the process of falling apart before our eyes. The temptation, in nearly all European capitals, is towards foot-dragging or, if possible, to pack up and go home. Merely note the case of Lisbon.
We are currently in a very important phase of the Euro-Atlantic relationship. Given what is at stake and the expectations on both sides of the Atlantic, it is essential that both the Europeans and the Americans put an end to their exaggerated Afghani dreams. These dreams are unrealistic and dangerous. Ending them requires abandoning the political illusions of the past few years and a return to more essential questions. Two are particularly important.
The first is remembering what led first the United States and, later, the European countries and the international community to intervene in Afghanistan. At its height, the objective was to eliminate Al-Qaeda and to prevent the organization from again using the country to plan, train and direct a terrorist campaign against Arab countries and their European and American allies. This objective was partially achieved with an extremely low number of American special forces and CIA agents supported by aerial and naval power, as well as a whole lot of money.
The second thing which is worth remembering now is that this limited objective was progressively widened in the years that followed. The persecution and destruction of Al-Qaeda gave way to the objective of reconstructing and totally transforming the country from a social, economic, and political point of view. From that point, the idea of making Afghanistan a democracy was but a small step. Kabul became a sort of nirvana for hundreds of international organizations and very well-paid consultants. NATO chose Afghanistan as its principal mission and the old world sent their soldiers to help rebuild the country. Today, the mission of these troops is, increasingly, to combat the Taliban and other warlords. Said in another way, counter-terrorism has given way to an anti-insurgency campaign in a country which has always looked with great superstition upon foreigners.
John McCain and Barrack Obama’s proposals show that the USA have decided to take to the end a campaign of this sort in Afghanistan as well as on the Pakistani frontier in the next few years. This sort of campaign would only be possibly with competent government and institutions in Kabul and a substantial increase in political, economic and military resources throughout the rest of the country. Even if NATO were capable of carrying out an anti-insurgency campaign that had political, economic, and military resources – something highly doubtful in and of itself – it is worth stopping and wondering if this really makes sense from a strategic point of view. Realism never hurt anybody. Especially Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, the defense secretary of George W. Bush’s administration, coined the term “next-war-itis” to describe the intense American debate about the type of conflict which the U.S. will most likely engage in next. An irregular war or a conventional one? The list of promotions to brigadier-general in the army submitted by George. W. Bush to the senate two weeks ago shows that the new generation of American military leaders will finally have officials with enormous experience in irregular warfare. The list includes officers who have had a variety of commissions in Iraq and Afghanistan – Sean B. MacFarland, H.R. McMaster, Stephen J. Townsend, and Jeffrey J. Snow – as well as officials from the world of special operations – Kenneth E. Tovo, Edward M. Reeder, Paul J. LaCamera, and Austin S. Miller. Five women make up a part of this group of the American army’s elite.