Upon further reflection, my post of October 24 on America’s war in Afghanistan was somewhat confused and unpolished. It is reflective of too much happening in my life right now, too many work and family things to remember, too many different thoughts and facts about the war to sift through, and simply not thinking coherently. To simplify and be more precise, my overall view of the war is that, like Vietnam but unlike Korea, this is not a conventional war. In military terms it is a guerrilla war.
This is my perspective. The more conventional the war, the more important the purely military considerations are over other important factors like politics and culture. By contrast, in a guerrilla war the military aspects are diminished, though not to the point of unimportance. Politics and culture matter more and often trump the military reality. At the same time, economics theoretically trumps everything but America can afford a drastically scaled-back scenario in Afghanistan.
I have no clue how President Obama (or whoever) will choose to continue in Afghanistan after the draw-down date in 2014. But, here’s something feasible, if indeed the war needs to last another decade as McChrystal says. A brigade of regular infantry (4,000-5,000 troops) remains in three or four remote areas of Afghanistan protecting a handful of bases out of which an additional 1,000 or so special forces troops are deployed on continued kill-capture missions. An Afghan force of 200,000 troops (advised by teams of American military staff with modest American security forces – 1,000 more officers and instructors with a few good fire teams alongside to protect them) patrols the country and prevents organized insurgents from massing and controlling provinces as they did as recently as 2009.
That may be wishful thinking. The uncertain component here, of course, is can the Afghan’s do their part? We are militarily winning the war as of this post. though the press is doing all it can to misinform otherwise. The price-tag of America's continuing its presence in Afghanistan after 2014 along the lines of what I mention above is affordable. So, we can economically afford to remain there. But, the Afghan’s have to become a significant military force for this scaled back approach to work. Right now, there are many challenges to training the Afghan security forces anything beyond the basics in self-defense. They have no true offensive, striking capability.
But, where I become truly conflicted (which muddles my articulation) is that this still results in a "shotgun democracy". I just don’t think such democracies last. Eventually, Afghanistan will most likely revert to some sort of central, tribal power. This has been the case for centuries there. So, while America might continue to fight the war, I do not think it can lessen the karmic weight of cultural history. In that sense Afghanistan is a winnable but ultimately unsustainable war. We simply can’t keep winning it long enough.
In this way Afghanistan is most like Vietnam. But, in the sense of a possible lasting presence it is more like Korea. America has maintained an usually large military presence in South Korea (as well as in Germany since 1945) since that war’s cease-fire. (The Korean War has never officially ended. Both nations are still, diplomatically speaking, at war 60 years later.) But, for decades deployment to Korea has meant a peaceful tour whereas deployment to Afghanistan would be to initiate and support kill/capture missions. A different thing indeed. So, we rationally snake our way back to a similarity with Vietnam. Even when American troops were used “defensively” they were harassed and attacked by enemy fire (think the 1968 TET offensive, simultaneously a decisive American military victory, yet political and cultural defeat).
Our operations in Afghanistan since Obama's Surge have been successful. But, in the end, it is probably the kind of success the American people will not support.