I think it won’t come to news as anyone to learn that the Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan will include the dispatch of additional American military forces. I know not everyone is enthusiastic about that kind of escalating effort, but it is worth recalling that the total number of American troops in Afghanistan will be rising to only about 60,000 — that’s much less than were in pre-surge Iraq. Indeed, it’s actually close to some of the high-end estimates for the number of so-called “residual” forces that are supposed to be left in Iraq after the American military has “left.” Under the circumstances, I think skeptics of grandiose American power projection — a group in which I’d include myself — would be better off pushing to curtail or eliminate these “residual” deployments of Iraq, which really make no strategic sense, rather than worrying about the small influx to Afghanistan for which I see a reasonable case.
Two developments that were less clearly going to happen, but which I find welcome if the Times’s description is correct are that the administration “for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban there [i.e., Afghanistan] and in Pakistan.” This is crucially important. For one thing, I think clear benchmarks actually make short-term success more likely since they focus the mission on objectives. But more importantly I’ve been worried for months now that Obama’s plan might get the administration caught up in the vicious logic of escalation, where you start escalating because you think there’s a chance it’ll work, and then if it doesn’t work all you can do is keep on escalating. I think the odds of the multi-modal influx of military forces, civilian development and governance experts, and money working are pretty good. But any honest person is going to have to concede that this is uncertain ground and that our fortunes depend in part on the actions of people we can’t control. It’s important to have some policy offramps, some points at which we might conclude that we can’t achieve our biggest goals and need to radically scale back.
The other interesting point is that “officials said he planned to recast the Afghan war as a regional issue involving not only Pakistan but also India, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian states.” This is exactly right. As I was saying yesterday you have to at things through some very American-tinted lenses to see a “regional” consisting of Pakistan and Afghanistan somewhere on the map. Pakistan’s “regional” outlook is all about India, and Russia and China see Afghanistan as existing in a “region” of Central Asian states that border them. America’s interests in Afghanistan are narrow and a little bit idiosyncratic — relating to the contingent fact that Osama bin Laden took his operation there about a decade ago — but there are also enduring facts of geography and culture that shape other countries’ responses.