As Ezra Klein says “It would be nice if Anthony Cordesman definied the word ‘victory’ in this piece.” Or, again, it would have been nice if one of the editors of the Washington Post opinion section had made that observation before running the piece rather than waiting for one of their bloggers to notice it. But it really does make the specific claims he offers about what we ought to do in order to achieve victory hard to evaluate. His failure to do so is part of the annoying trend toward defining Afghanistan strategy debates in incredibly stark, binary terms. Either we need to commit maxim resources to a maximalist strategy, or else we’re going to admit “defeat” and cut and run. Realistically, though, there’s a broad middle ground of options between “eliminate all US support for Afghan government and let the Taliban run amok” and “engage in decades-long effort to remark all of Afghan politics and society.”
Another note I would offer on the Cordesman piece is that he defines the problems we need to confront in the region as including not only the Taliban, but also the government of Afghanistan (“Bush administration . . . did not react to the growing corruption of Hamid Karzai’s government”) and the government of Pakistan (“Bush administration . . . treated Pakistan as an ally when it was clear to U.S. experts on the scene that the Pakistani military and intelligence service . . . still try to manipulate Afghan Pashtuns to Pakistan’s advantage.”) This of course raises the question of on whose behalf this fighting is happening? The stability of Pakistan is often offered as the reason we need to be fighting the Taliban, but if it’s folly to be treating Pakistan as an ally then how much sense does this make? And if Karzai is part of the problem, too, then who’s side are we on?
Last but by no means least, it seems ridiculous to premise strategy on the idea that we need to somehow get Pakistan to stop trying to manipulate Afghan Pashtuns to Pakistan’s advantage. Are they supposed to manipulate them to Pakistan’s disadvantage? Is Pakistan supposed to become more indifferent to events in an adjacent country than the United States is? As long as Pakistan is stronger than Afghanistan—and it’s much, much stronger—then of course it will try to manipulate the situation there to its advantage.