Friday, February 12, 2010

Amidst the flailing economy and the election of Cosmo centerfolds to Congress we have lost focus on Afghanistan. Ignored in the State of the Union, the campaign had a brief burst of news two weeks ago, but has again dipped below the horizon; outshined by domestic concerns.

However, two trends of note are emerging in Afghanistan. The first, which I will not address in this post, is the offensive in Marjah. The second is the plan to pay a Pashtun tribe, the Shinwari, to fight against the Taliban. This news broke at the end of January, but quickly faded, much to my surprise and dismay.

It makes no sense here to regurgitate the repeated failings of this policy in the past, especially when Max Fisher at the Atlantic does such a thorough job cataloging the tawdry disasters of yesteryear. His point, which I agree with, is that arming one faction to fight another is a risky gamble that often creates short-term gains that are paid for with long-term consequences. As Fisher notes, we don’t have to look far for a comparison - it was not too long ago that we were funding the very same fighters in Afghanistan who are now targeting U.S. forces.

Interestingly, after noting Gore Vidal’s epithet “the United States of Amnesia,” Fisher goes on to commit a similar fallacy by heralding the “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq as an example of a successful strategic implementation. His mistake is considering it to have been a cut-and-dried triumph, rather than the ongoing struggle that exists in reality. You don’t have to read all forty-one installments of Tom Ricks’ never-ending “Iraq, the Unraveling” series to get the picture that there are still deep tensions between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq and that all the security brought by the “Sunni Awakening” and “The Surge” didn’t lead to a single bit of political reconciliation. Bringing Sunni fighters onto the payroll unquestionably helped halt the sectarian violence in Iraq, but that short-term gain may have been purchased at a great price. What happens if (when?) the violence returns, U.S. forces are no longer present to provide some semblance of order, and the Sunni insurgents have used U.S. funds and support to re-arm and train into a more capable fighting force?

My point here is two-fold. First, it is a mistake to consider the “Sunni Awakening” a success. It worked in the short-term, but may cost more down the road. Ask me for my opinion in ten years. Secondly, any deal the U.S. cuts with the Shinwari or any other group comes with significant risk. I don’t mean to say it’s not an option (in fact, the cynic in me sees this as a perfect feint to provide temporary stability and political cover while U.S. troops withdraw). I do, however, want to stress the potential long-term consequences of such an action. General McChrystal and Colonel George, I hope you have read your history and given careful consideration to the implications.

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