You probably won’t see anyone describe it in these terms, but the proposal for a city-focused campaign in Afghanistan reported by Thom Shanker, Peter Baker, and Helene Cooper in the New York Times strikes me as mighty similar to what the U.S.S.R. eventually settled into in Afghanistan:
At the moment, the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital, seen as a center of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances.
You probably won’t see anyone describe it in those terms because it sounds bad, but as I’ve said before I think the right way to understand the Soviet experience is to see that the United States could probably make this work. It sort of worked for the Soviets, and they were a much weaker and poorer country facing people who were getting much more extensive external support than our adversaries. But of course you’re still left with the fact that commanders in the region want more resources and would probably keep agitating for more even if you implemented this semi-limited strategy:
But military planners are also pressing for enough troops to safeguard major agricultural areas, like the hotly contested Helmand River valley, as well as regional highways essential to the economy — tasks that would require significantly more reinforcements beyond the 21,000 deployed by Mr. Obama this year.
Politically speaking, if you’re the President what you want to be able to say is that there’s some relatively restrained military policy that’s also “the best” policy. Realistically, though, it seems like a cheaper policy (let’s not worry about the Helmand River valley) actually has some drawbacks relative to a more costly policy. That is, of course, generally the way policy choices work. More generous subsidies make a health care mandate work better, but they cost more money. But it’s a bit alien to a lot of the way we talk about national security policy in the United States. Part of the iterative process between military professionals and civilian political leaders is that the political leaders need to reach conclusions about the importance of proposed ventures relative to other possible priorities. How much does the Helmand River valley really matter to the United States?
Some people have read my use of the phrase “you probably won’t see anyone describe it in these terms” to imply that my analogy between this strategy and the Soviet approach is original to me. What I should have said was that you shouldn’t expect to see American officials describe it in those terms. I first picked up the parallel from Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid.