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CFR-Politico Online Chat on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Discussant: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Fred Barbash, Senior Editor, Politico
November 2, 2009


FRED BARBASH: Welcome everyone to another POLITICO-Council on Foreign Relations chat. Our guest today is Max Boot. He'll be with us at noon to take your questions about Afghanistan. You're invited to submit questions in advance. Please use a name, rather than a handle or "guest."

Mr. Boot wrote this provocative article--"Give McChrystal a fighting chance"--in the Weekly Standard.


Max Boot wrote this in his Weekly Standard piece:

"Many Democrats appear eager to minimize our involvement so they can concentrate on health care reform and other domestic priorities. They tell themselves that this is the height of realism because, really, what chance do we have to prevail in the "graveyard of empires"?

If we listen to such advice coming from those who have never set foot in Afghanistan, perhaps it is worthwhile to listen also to the voices of those who are actually here--Afghans and their foreign partners. That's precisely what I did during the course of a 10-day trip across Afghanistan undertaken at the invitation of General David Petraeus. What I heard and saw suggests that many Washington savants are out of touch with the on-the-ground reality."

Welcome to all our readers at POLITICO and on the CFR site. Thanks for participating. And welcome Max Boot. It's an honor to have you and the timing couldn't be better.

Let me begin by asking you to elaborate briefly, on the passage I quoted above, where you say that "many Washington savants are out of touch." What did you learn in Afghanistan on your recent trip that prompts you to say that?

MAX BOOT:  Glad to be here. Re the quote you chose: The "on the ground reality" that I found is that while the fight in Afghanistan is difficult it is by no means mission impossible. Our soldiers and marines are making good progress in the areas where they have concentrated resources--districts like Nawa in Helmand and Baraki Barak in Logar which I visited recently. The problem is that there are not enough troops to expand these "oil spots" across more of the Taliban-plagued landscape. I think it's imperative that the president provide the resources Gen. McChrystal needs to carry out his very impressive counterinsurgency strategy. What's frustrating to me is that many Democrats, especially on the Hill, are buying into myths about Afghanistan being the "graveyard of empires." They are also, I think, hesitant to make a major commitment for fear of diverting resources from domestic commitments. That is, in my view, a terrible mistake that could risk Afghanistan becoming a lost war--something that would mar the Obama presidency indelibly.

[Comment From Kevin S: ]

Do you think the first phase of the new strategy in Afghanistan is to address the massive fraud in the last election. It seems that rushing in large number of troops without first addressing the widely recognized election fraud would have been a PR boon for the Taliban or any other group opposing our troops.

MAX BOOT:  I don't think there is much that can be done to address the election fraud which I think disturbs Westerners more than most Afghans. Afghans will judge their government by what it provides rather than how it was selected. Fraud or not, Karzai will be the lead of Afghanistan and we need to work with him, as well as cabinet members and esp local officials, to fight corruption and improve governance. That is a task that will require more resources, both military and civilian, to mentor and supervise the Afghans. In other words, fraud and poor governance is an argument for a troop surge--not against it.

[Comment From Janaina: ]

How this election result can affect Obama's decision of sending more troops to Afghanistan? Taking into account that Karzai doesn't have full support in his own country, do you believe it might be a sign that the US will need more soldiers there? Does it change in any way the american strategy in the country?

MAX BOOT:  It is not at all surprising that Karzai doesn't have full support. If he had full support, there wouldn't be an insurgency in the first place. But he does have a lot of support in the Pashtun community where the insurgency is based. He certainly has at least as much legitimacy as Maliki had in Iraq in 2007. We can work with him as we have in the past. The trick is to push him quietly behind the scenes and not beat him up in public as some administration officials have done. Afghanistan is too important to our own security (think of 9/11) for us to throw up our hands in despair because Karzai is not a perfect leader or even a great one. We have to work with what we have.

[Comment From Dean: ]

In your position pieces you appear to agree with the "clear, hold, and build" strategy, and most of the success stories pertain to "clear" and "hold." The elephant in the room is "build": with a continuing weak central government, the implication of "build" is really state building and maintenance for a very long time. If Afghanistan is to be the lynchpin of a counter-terrrorist strategy, then the US must have a plan and the will to address economic reasons for insurgency (such as the income of poppy growers). If yours is a military-surge-only strategy, how do you justify it? If it's a long-term strategy, how do you estimate its real cost?

MAX BOOT:  I don't have a strategy. Gen. McChrystal has a strategy and it is not a military-only strategy. He stresses development, reconciliation, rule of law, and other important issues. That doesn't mean we have to transform Afghanistan. It simply means we have to bolster the government of Afghanistan so it can outgovern the Taliban shadow government. That is very do-able. As for the costs of such a strategy? They will be considerable--this is a multiyear commitment requiring over 100K troops and hundreds of billions of dollars. But it is still a bargain compared to the cost of leaving Afghanistan and letting the Taliban take over. We tried that once before. It didn't work out so well.

[Comment From Jen: ]

How do you explain the...should I say, "timidity" of someone like George Will on the subject of Afghanistan? If conservatives don't support this, who will? And isn't domestic support in the U.S. critical?

MAX BOOT:  I was dismayed to see Geo Will turn against the Iraq War and now the Afghanistan War--both wars he supported before he opposed them. There are a handful of other conservatives who have turned against the war too--one that once had almost universal support. The good news is that most conservatives and most Republicans are sticking by the war and the commander in chief. The problem is really on the left. Liberals too once supported the war but are now bailing out because it's turned out to be harder than expected. That's really unfortunate. I wish they would live up their rhetoric when they accused Bush of neglecting Afghanistan (with some justice) and called Afghanistan the "central front" in the war on terror.

[Comment From Alexandra: ]

Jen has a point. You may think its a "go," and McChrystal may think its a "go," but how do you sell this to the public, which is skeptical?

MAX BOOT:  We need presidential leadership to explain why the war is important, why we can't afford to lose, and how we can prevail by implementing the strategy that Gen. McChrystal has formulated. I don't see the public turning deeply against the war; I see doubt and hesitation and ambivalence mainly because we have not been making progress. We saw much higher levels of opposition to the Iraq War when President Bush ordered the surge. That commitment turned around the situation on the ground. Subsequently public support for the Iraq War increased. I see something similar happening in Afghanistan if Pres. Obama makes a major commitment. But there has been so much ambivalence and hesitation in the White House. It's not surprising that the American people are not rallying behind a war that their commander in chief seems so uncertain about.

[Comment From Andra: ]

What can we do to help Pakistan, which seems to be under constant attack?

MAX BOOT: Pakistan is a major issue but we don't have much direct leverage. We can help the Pakistani military as we're doing now, but that gives us only an indirect and imperfect instrument to affect developments there. The best thing we can do for Pakistan is to stabilize Afghanistan. Otherwise we risk a situation where militants getting hammered by the Pak military are driven across the border and find new sanctuary in Afghanistan. Conversely if we stabilize Afghanistan we can work to export that stability across the Durand Line.

[Comment From John: ]

To what extend is sustainable security -- i.e. more than a few years, and after we leave -- dependent on nationalism in Afghanistan? Doesn't the deeply-rooted tribalism in the country rule out the kind of nationalism necessary for a legitimate state military that can defend the population long after we leave?

MAX BOOT:  There are a lot of myths about Afghanistan not being a real state. In fact it's been a state since the 18th C.--longer than Germany or Italy. Tribal sentiment is strong but there is a sense of national identity too. Afghanistan was actually pretty peaceful and stable, if decentralized, prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. We are now working to rebuild the military and the ANA (Afghan National Army) shows great promise. Its soldiers are willing to fight hard and they are not too marred by corruption. Problem is the ANA is way too small right now. Our ultimate exit strategy is to increase the size of the ANA but this will take time. That's why we need US troops in the interim.

[Comment From Josh: ]

If 40,000 more doesnt do it, would you add another 40,000, and then another? How many troops--ultimately--would you be willing to commit over time? Half a million?

MAX BOOT:  That's a theoretical question that I can't answer. It does remind me of similar questions raised before the Iraq surge when most people doubted that more troop could make a difference. We found that in Iraq the surge worked faster than anyone could have imagined. I can't promise the same results in Afghanistan but we will never know until we try. The one thing we know is that the current strategy of muddling along without adequate resources isn't working; it is bringing us to the brink of defeat, as Gen. McChrystal has warned.

[Comment From Kevin S: ]

With the 13,000 support troops moved into Afghanistan over the last few months was this to back fill support for fighting troops or to support future troops?

MAX BOOT:  The support troops currently in Afghanistan are there to support current troop commitments. We actually don't have enough support right now--we need more Medevac and route clearance for instance. Future troop commitments will require more support. That's factored into the 40K-45K troop figure that Gen. McChrystal requested. BTW I don't believe that more troops alone are the answer. We also need a change of strategy but that is something Gen. McChrystal is now implementing. The trick is to have a good strategy that is adequately resourced. So far we have the strategy but not the resources.

[Comment From Andy: ]

Why do you suppose the president is taking all this time? What do you think is really going on? Was he waiting on the Afghanistan election..for symbolic reasons. Do you think he's "dithering," like Cheney says?

MAX BOOT: Obviously Pres. Obama faces a difficult and momentous decision and he is carefully considering it. That is certainly his right, indeed his obligation. What confuses me is: Why now? The administration had an earlier Afpak policy review whose results were announced on March 27. All of the issues now being debated were debated then. I thought the administration had settled on the COIN strategy but now it is revisiting that commitment. I don't think the flawed Afghan presidential election is cause to rethink our entire strategy. But whatever the process I hope that the president reaches the right decision--to back his on the ground commander who has developed a good plan with a very smart team of experienced officers.

[Comment From Bruce G.: ]

Would you also send force to Somalia, as the Washington Post more or less urged this morning? Is Afghanistan a one-off because of 9/11 or is sending in troops to terrorist safe-harbors something you'd be willing to continue in other countries.

MAX BOOT:  Afghanistan is obviously an unusual case since it is the place from which 9/11 was launched. It is also next door to a nuclear armed, very unstable state. We have a major reason to foster stability in Pakistan and the best way we can do that is to stabilize Afghanistan. Somalia doesn't meet all these criteria. That doesn't mean we can ignore it but there is little support for a major troop commitment. We have to think of second-best ways to prevent that state from becoming a staging ground for terrorists--eg backing the Ethiopians as we have in the past, or launching SOF raids. Those are not great options--Somalia is still going to be a mess. But we are not going to make a bigger commitment there. I do think however we need to see our commitment in Afghanistan through to a successful endstate.

[Comment From Steven: ]

I've not read all the way through your article, but are you taking issue with claims that we are alienating the population there with our presence, and our drone strikes and so forth? Do the people of Afghanistan want us there?

MAX BOOT:  I asked a number of Afghans what would happen if we left. One district subgovernor laughed and said don't even think about it. That's not an unusual view. Public opinion polls show high levels of support for the US military presence. The biggest gripe that Afghans have is that our troops are not doing enough to bring security. They have also complained about civilian casualties from air strikes but Gen. McChrystal has implemented rigorous rules to make that much more infrequent. The people of Afghanistan definitely want us there. What they don't want is the Taliban--only 4% back a return to Taliban rule. The Taliban have made inroads by fear and intimidation not by winning popularity contests.

[Comment From Arianna: ]

Do you think Obama's hesitation emboldens the Taliban...

MAX BOOT:  Any perceived hesitation in Washington emboldens the Taliban. That is the downside of the lengthy review process the president is running. But if at the end of that process he makes a major commitment and makes clear to the public he will stand behind the war effort, that should undo a lot of the damage.

[Comment From Steve: ]

At what point, if ever, will an Afghan army be capable of defending that country?

FRED BARBASH: One more question after this folks...then time's up.

MAX BOOT: Good question. It will take a few years. The ANA is currently way too small--only about 50K troops in the field. I know there is a lot of frustration and skepticism but look at Iraq--another country I just visited. The Iraqi Security Forces now number over 620K and they are taking the lead in security across the country. Attacks have not gone up since US troops left the cities on June 30. If you had told me that the ISF would be as self sufficient as it is today--if you had told me that a couple of years ago--I would have said you were crazy. But it's happening in Iraq and it can happen in Afghanistan if we make a similar commitment there.

[Comment From Dean: ]

If Josh's question about 40,000 troops, then more, then more, is a theoretical one, then an equally valid point of comparison is Vietnam, not Iraq. (South) Vietnam had a weak corrupt government that we supported while the resident insurgency simply waited us out.

MAX BOOT:  Sigh. Not another Vietnam analogy. Please refer to my piece in the Weekly Standard a couple of weeks ago on why we should not be comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam.


That's it folks. Thanks so much Max for your time and your intelligence today. We hope we can get you back soon. And thanks to all our readers, with apologies to the questions we did not get to.

So long for now.


More on This Topic


Don't Go Wobbly

Author: Max Boot
Weekly Standard

Despite the last week's setbacks, Max Boot argues for a firm commitment to a future U.S. presence in Afghanistan.