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07.17.10

The Republican Fight Over Afghanistan

As Hillary Clinton heads to Kabul for an international conference on security, a civil war has erupted in the Republican Party over Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, Republicans have fought among themselves over the war in Afghanistan.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele ignited the furor by disavowing the war as President Obama's folly. That comment was sharply attacked by Sen. John McCain and others, questioning Steele's ability to lead the party.

William Kristol took Steele's remark as "an affront, both to the honor of the Republican Party, and to the commitment of the soldiers fighting to accomplish the mission they've been asked to take on by our elected leaders."

I wish more Republicans would follow suit, neither claiming support for the war as a litmus test for Republican loyalty nor, like Steele, disowning the war as the Democrats' problem.

Newt Gingrich may never be his party's presidential nominee, but speaking on Afghanistan this week, he showed the political courage—and intellectual sophistication—I hope for from our 2012 candidate.

The former House Speaker cautioned that it wasn't quite so simple, saying that "counterinsurgency doctrine doesn't go deep enough for some place like Afghanistan. You're dealing with Afghan culture that is fundamentally different than us, in ways we don't understand."

I wish more Republicans would follow suit, neither claiming support for the war as a litmus test for Republican loyalty nor, like Steele, disowning the war as the Democrats' problem.

Patriotism means that we must support our troops while they're in Afghanistan—but not that we must agree that they should be there, or that they're doing the right things. There's nothing wrong with being a Republican and being deeply skeptical about our war strategy.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: A Warning in KabulMany of the American soldiers I know in Afghanistan are themselves deeply skeptical of the American non-strategy. And many of these soldiers are Republicans. They often find themselves "enacting governance on the local level," in the words of Captain Mike Tumlin of the 82nd Airborne, trying to sideline or remove Afghan officials who steal from, or murder and rape the very people they're supposed to serve, only to see their hard and sometimes bloody work brought to naught by corrupt higher-ups in Kabul. They're not fighting for a good government against the evil Taliban, but for one evil against another.

Michael Steele was foolish to try to position Afghanistan as a Democratic mistake. But he is also wrong to believe Afghanistan was unwinnable from the start.

In his speech this week, Gingrich got to the heart of the problem. We've been applying counterinsurgency doctrine (and that haphazardly), assuming that the people are the center of gravity. Win the people over to support their government and you win the war. But if counterinsurgency is "a war of perceptions," to use a phrase favored by ousted General Stanley McChrystal, it behooves us to understand how Afghans perceive things.

As Newt says, we don't.

Many American observers were shocked when Dr. Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of the runoff election with President Hamid Karzai this November. It seemed irresponsible and wrong. But Afghan supporters of the opposition candidate—whom I admire—explained to me that in Afghan terms, a candidate who couldn't "protect" his supporters' votes was likely to lose their support. Even if Abdullah lost the second round because Karzai repeated his massive fraud, his supporters would blame him, just as an Afghan father might kill his daughter if she is raped, because that fact alone brings dishonor on the family.

We don't understand, and we may not be so good at predicting how the Afghans will respond to our actions.

We've spent $51.5 billion to date on the Afghan war, about four years' worth of that country's GDP—enough to give every Afghan $2,000  to $2,500. About half of our expenditure has gone to standing up the Afghan National Security Forces. That $25 billion also equals the entire Israeli defense budget for two years.

For what we've spent, we could have re-created the Israeli Army, Air Force and Navy in Afghanistan. Only we didn't. Instead, at enormous cost, we have fielded a marginally competent army and a barely capable police force, both of which lose between 25 percent and 70 percent  of their men annually. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more than $3 billion has been openly flown out of Kabul Airport since 2007.

What we have in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency strategy of tactics. COIN is a set of tactics: station your troops among the people, conduct a lot of meetings with tribal elders to find out what bribes they want, protect them from the insurgents, connect them with their officials—every private knows the mantra. But COIN is not a strategy.

Strategy requires a political vision. Throughout history, counterinsurgency has barely worked when conducted by a government with substantial popular support. It is much more of a challenge, when the government, like Karzai's, lacks almost all support.

Why should Republicans tolerate waste of our tax money, merely because it happens in Afghanistan? Exactly which Republican values do the Karzai brothers—merchants in drugs and explosives, skimmers of contracts and runners of protection rackets—exemplify? Why is it honorable for Republicans to sacrifice the best of our young people for a miserable kleptocracy?

A reckoning is overdue.

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, who blogs for World Affairs, recently completed her sixth embed with American troops in Afghanistan. Her monograph on David Galula will be published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College this summer.