I’ll introduce this post by talking a bit about Stratfor, short for Strategic Forecasting — a private think tank/global security analysis outfit founded and run by George Friedman, a policy wonk in the grand mode. I first heard about them shortly after 9/11, when Chris Barrus pointed them out in the welter of discussion which understandably overwhelmed ILX. Friedman, a self-described conservative Republican, is far from the only voice and site examining global security and the state of the world, public or private, but it’s easy to see why he’s received the attention he has.
While it should be said that the site’s claim that there’s no ‘ideology, a partisan agenda, or a policy prescription’ might be slightly overstated (overt ideology, true, but there’s an unspoken one), Friedman and his Stratfor writers and analysts aim for discussion in as cold a way as possible — not entirely dispassionate, but not arguing ideology either. Rather, this is strategic shop talk on a grand scale, for those who love power politics, amorality and Machiavelli. That may sound extreme, but as much as I do have my own beliefs and deeply held convictions — on capital punishment, torture, individual freedom and so forth — I have a fascination with Realpolitik as it is (often badly) carried out. It’s not that I want to be someone involved with it all, rather that I prefer to try and look at things as coldly as I can in turn. It appeals to a certain part of me that is…not inhuman, I would say, but self-consciously removed.
I remember during 9/11 that I was thinking and discussing in as flat a way as possible as the circumstances allowed (the first couple of hours were rough in that there was a possibility a friend had been caught in the towers; happily he had not gone into work yet that day). Given all the folderol since, that cold flatness has its place more than I might have appreciated before then, and so while I’m not a full subscriber to Stratfor, I appreciate being on the random mailout list and look forward to what I call their ‘tea leaf reading’ — because that’s what they do best, see what can be seen and concluding and speculate, without absolute guarantee of what will happen next, what is likely going on around the world.
Anyway, their latest mailing is on the situation in Afghanistan, and I’ll excerpt a brief bit here to call to your attention. The longer war and battles draw out over there, the more I wonder what the end result will be. Emphasis, towards the end, is mine:
Supporters of the war in Iraq support the war in Afghanistan. Opponents of the war in Iraq also support Afghanistan. If there is a good war in our time, Afghanistan is it.
It is also a war that is in trouble. In the eyes of many, one of the Afghan war’s virtues has been that NATO has participated as an entity. But NATO has come under heavy criticism from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for its performance. Some, like the Canadians, are threatening to withdraw their troops if other alliance members do not contribute more heavily to the mission. More important, the Taliban have been fighting an effective and intensive insurgency. Further complicating the situation, the roots of many of the military and political issues in Afghanistan are found across the border in Pakistan.
If the endgame in Iraq is murky, the endgame if Afghanistan is invisible. The United States, its allies and the Kabul government are fighting a holding action strategically. They do not have the force to destroy the Taliban — and in counterinsurgency, the longer the insurgents maintain their operational capability, the more likely they are to win. Further stiffening the Taliban resolve is the fact that, while insurgents have nowhere to go, foreigners can always decide to go home.
The real issue is the hardest to determine. Is al Qaeda prime — not al Qaeda enthusiasts or sympathizers who are able to carry out local suicide bombings, but the capable covert operatives we saw on 9/11 — still operational? And even if it is degraded, given enough time, will al Qaeda be able to regroup and ramp up its operational capability? If so, then the United States must maintain its posture in Afghanistan, as limited and unbalanced as it is. The United States might even need to consider extending the war to Pakistan in an attempt to seal the border if the Taliban continue to strengthen. But if al Qaeda is not operational, then the rationale for guarding Kabul and Karzai becomes questionable.
We have no way of determining whether al Qaeda remains operational; we are not sure anyone can assess that with certainty. Certainly, we have not seen significant operations for a long time, and U.S. covert capabilities should have been able to weaken al Qaeda over the past seven years. But if al Qaeda remains active, capable and in northwestern Pakistan, then the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will continue.
As the situation in Iraq settles down — and it appears to be doing so — more focus will be drawn to Afghanistan, the war that even opponents of Iraq have acknowledged as appropriate and important. But it is important to understand what this war consists of: It is a holding action against an enemy that cannot be defeated (absent greater force than is available) with open lines of supply into a country allied with the United States. It is a holding action waiting for certain knowledge of the status of al Qaeda, knowledge that likely will not come. Afghanistan is a war without exit and a war without victory. The politics are impenetrable, and it is even difficult to figure out whether allies like Pakistan are intending to help or are capable of helping.
Thus, while it may be a better war than Iraq in some sense, it is not a war that can be won or even ended. It just goes on.