What to do in Afghanistan, yet another look

Michael Gerson turned to Gen. Petraeus in effort to counter arguments that the war in Afghanistan is not winnable. Petraeus, it seems, was unable to say that it is. Instead he told Gerson:

To be fair, all of us should be asking that question more, in view of allegations of electoral fraud” in the recent Afghan election.. I don’t think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won’t work out if we don’t.

If that’s all the answer we’re going to get – in effect, that our likelihood of success is irrelevant – then there’s not much point in asking the question.
Petraeus continued:

The opportunity is reconciliation. About 70 to 80 percent [of the insurgents] are in this to survive, to scratch out a living, are intimidated or coerced. They are not true believers. [Even in Afghanistan] the core principles of counterinsurgency still obtain. . . . If you make people’s lives better, they are grateful for it.

But in a vast, primitive country with a corrupt government, what would it take to make people’s live better on a large scale? More, I’m pretty sure, than the American administration, and probably the American public, is prepared to expend.
All of that said, I’d still be inclined to attempt the surge that our commanders are now calling for. As Gerson states,

The people of Afghanistan know what it’s like to live under the Taliban, and there is no evidence they want to go back to it. Afghan consent for the American presence in their country, according to polls, is resilient and sustained.

So there are probably forces in Afghanistan that could create a wave similar to the “Sunni awakening” that crushed al Qaeda in Iraq, and might do so in their own interests without waiting for us to successfully complete nation-building. But, as in Iraq, those forces need to see a U.S. that is surging, not “spiraling downward” (to use Petraeus’ phrase).
Perhaps things won’t come together as they did in Iraq – there’s plenty of reason to think they won’t, just as there was in Iraq for that matter. But for me, as long as we can envisage a plausible scenario under which they will come together, the gamble of a one or two year surge is probably worth it.


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