At the Brookings Institutions’ event on policy options for Afghanistan last Friday, former U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar offered one of the best framings of the strategic argument over Afghanistan that I’ve heard. “The ultimate objective of everything we do in South Asia is to enhance the safety and security of the American people,” Pillar began. “Unfortunately a lot of the debate about this Afghanistan issue has confused and conflated that ultimate objective, particular missions that may or may not enhance that objective, and particular strategies designed to accomplish specified missions.”
When you look at what our theater commander [McChrystal] has been focusing on, he has quite properly focused on strategies for accomplishing his assigned mission as he currently understands it. Which, to put it quite simply is to stabilize Afghanistan, or at least to prevent the current Afghan government from falling.
But President Obama needs to focus on a broader question, which is whether counterinsurgency in Afghanistan would enhance the safety and security of the American people enough to justify the costs and risks entailed. Or to refine the question even more with a counter-terrorist focus: Would the terrorist threat that the American people and American interests face without counterinsurgency in Afghanistan be enough different from what we would face with it…to justify the costs and risks of a properly resourced counterinsurgency?
In my judgment that difference is at best slight, and it may not even be in the right direction. And the main reason for that is the main threat from Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group or movement, is not to be equated with control over a particular piece of real estate by the group itself, or by the friends or patrons of that group.
Pillar has made the latter argument about the relative lack of importance of safe havens before, most recently in a September op-ed in the Washington Post, but I think his larger point here is important. We shouldn’t just be asking whether the successful implementation of the Full McChrystal in Afghanistan will make us safer than continuing to muddle through, but how much safer? If the answer is “not much” or “hard to say,” does that really justify the enormous costs — both human and monetary — of a fully resourced COIN approach? I really can’t think of any other policy area where an administration doing a deep dive into these kinds of hugely important questions regarding efficacy and cost would be attacked as irresponsible dithering, rather than praised as due diligence.