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Thread: Ralph Peter's Best to Worst COAs for Afghanistan

  1. #1
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Ralph Peter's Best to Worst COAs for Afghanistan

    DOn't know how many have read this yet. Ralph Peter's has an interesting piece in the USA Today on COAs in Afghanistan. Peter's as almost always is candid.

    His opener tells you exactly where he stands -

    The conflict in Afghanistan is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of concentrating on the critical mission of keeping Islamist terrorists on the defensive, we've mired ourselves by attempting to modernize a society that doesn't want to be — and cannot be — transformed.

    and why:

    Even if we achieved the impossible dream of creating a functioning, unified state in Afghanistan, it would have little effect on the layered crises in the Muslim world. Backward and isolated, Afghanistan is sui generis (only example of its kind). Political polarization in the U.S. precludes an honest assessment, but Iraq's the prize from which positive change might flow, while Afghanistan could never inspire neighbors who despise its backwardness
    He goes on to lay out his view of best and worst COAs

    Best. Instead of increasing the U.S. military "footprint," reduce our forces and those of NATO by two-thirds, maintaining a "mother ship" at Bagram Air Base and a few satellite bases from which special operations troops, aircraft and drones, and lean conventional forces would strike terrorists and support Afghan factions with whom we share common enemies. All resupply for our military could be done by air, if necessary.

    Stop pretending Afghanistan's a real state. Freeze development efforts. Ignore the opium. Kill the fanatics.
    Good. Leave entirely. Strike terrorist targets from over the horizon and launch punitive raids when necessary. Instead of facing another Vietnam ourselves, let Afghanistan become a Vietnam for Iran and Pakistan. Rebuild our military at home, renewing our strategic capabilities.
    Poor. Continue to muddle through as is, accepting that achieving any meaningful change in Afghanistan is a generational commitment. Surge troops for specific missions, but not permanently.
    Worst. Augment our forces endlessly and increase aid in the absence of a strategy. Lie to ourselves that good things might just happen. Let U.S. troops and Afghans continue to die for empty rhetoric, while Pakistan decays into a vast terrorist refuge
    .

    My questions - did he leave anything out? Is his view to narrow, too broad or just right?

    Best, Rob

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    Default

    Without forming a judgment as to whether he is right or wrong, the Best/Good options do not sound too dissimilar to the approach advocated by Rupert Smith in the Utility of Force, who said...

    The supporting arms and services must be kept to minimum so as to present the fewest targets...I think we must conceive of the application of force, in contrast to the intelligence and information operation, as a raid at theatre or strategic level rather than a sustained operation
    Smith, R. The Utility of Force, Penguin, London, 2006, p401

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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    We would probably differ on rationale somewhat, but I think he's essentially right.

    The decisive point for the US is our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until we are willing to begin adjusting our foreign policy from that point, working outward, we will simply be gnawing on the edges of the problem. (Note, I am in no way suggesting a military solution to the policy problem we have with the Saudis).

    Establishing a Shia dominated democracy of some sort between Iran and Saudi Arabia is certainly the long hard road toward adjusting our policy in the region, but it will have more effect than increased efforts in Afghanistan to try to turn it into a "little America."

    Biggest problem is that the politicians are so focused on the "two wars" in the region, that they ignore the giant policy disaster that those two wars are sitting in the middle of. My vote is to get a new comprehensive policy for the region that focuses on populaces over threats worked out first, and then decide where the "M" in DIME needs to be adjusted.
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Council Member Ron Humphrey's Avatar
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    Question He always gives you plenty to consider

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Thornton View Post

    My questions - did he leave anything out? Is his view to narrow, too broad or just right?

    Best, Rob
    That said I do wish he would have given more weight to the fact that despite many of the considerations he brought forth, in the end there is very much a certain level of requirement to do something.

    The fact that so much is out of wack and could be approached differently doesn't change the reality of a need to do something. We are stuck looking for the best of bad solutions because at least for now that seems to be all thats available.

    To do what needs to be done right will take a lot more time, and dedication of govt resources then we are likely to see anytime soon. It also doesn't help that so many of the "things" going on here contribute greatly to the perception of our ability to accomplish things over there.

    Perhaps that would be something to really focus on. Third, fourth order effects of words and actions here on our ability to speak and act on the international front.
    Any man can destroy that which is around him, The rare man is he who can find beauty even in the darkest hours

    Cogitationis poenam nemo patitur

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    Default Bless his heart

    I love Ralph like a brother.

    BUT a coupla points --

    Ralph's rant on killing all the Sunnis in Iraq, while thought provoking didn't bring much to the fight.

    What British experience is he talking about? 19th Century?

    During my tour, I met too many Afghans who really want a chance to break out of the cycle of war, poverty and exploitation. I remain convinced that they can make a difference if we give them even a modicum of support. At the same time we do need to help them keep from making the same mistakes our erstwhile Vietnamese allies made -- trying to maintain a thugacracy/kleptocracy when, in fact, real change was needed.

    As usual Brother Peters presents us with a great point of departure for a meaningful discussion.

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default Uh, What was the question???

    Looking at Ralph's option, I think:

    - Best: Agree but would continue development

    - Good: In the first place 'we' told them we would not do that * and in the second the OTH bit won't work.

    - Poor: Agreed.

    - Worst: Agreed.

    Strongly agree with gh_uk

    Also agree with Bob's World -- we're getting wrapped up in the minutia as we are entirely too prone to do...

    * Thus I also agree with Ron Humphrey:
    "...in the end there is very much a certain level of requirement to do something...Third, fourth order effects of words and actions here on our ability to speak and act on the international front.
    Add to that Old Eagle's comment re: what many Afghans want and consider the facts that we said we'd not abandon them and we need to restore the credibility of our words internationally -- that IMO, is a bigger hit on us with many than all the media rhetoric stuff -- and that the Afghans are just like anyone in else in that they will take every handout they can get and ask for more; that they will fix things in their interest when it can be shown that it is indeed going to be a benefit. They respect honor, pride and strength -- and we must show them that taking all you can get is ultimately counterproductive. They are not likely to come up with a strong central government but I believe they'll come up with something that works for them. We have opened a window for them to improve their situation. It is up to them and not up to us what they do with that opening. We should not try to sort it for them , we simply should continue to hold that window open for a bit and encourage but not push them to get it sorted.

    I'm bothered that we are dispatching 17K more troops and as yet have no announced goal. That's why I believe Ralph's "Best" option is an excellent idea until we sort out what we're trying to do.

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Choices in Afghanistan

    Here is a link to the article, which took awhile to locate on USA Today:
    http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/...ty-o.html#more

    (Added later) This article, far longer, is more helpful, but no options given: http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/P...illafranca.pdf

    Old Eagle: the comment on the UK's experience is: 'As the British learned the hard way, Afghanistan can be disciplined, but it can't be profitably occupied or liberalized'. IIRC on SWJ there is a comment akin to "You only rent Afghan loyalty". Don't overlook there was a substantial minority, in the cities, that supported reforms before the Soviet intervention; some of whom fought with the Soviets and many emigrated - I suspect far more stayed put.

    IMHO the British / Imperial history is as relevant today as then; why? Simply Afghanistan appears to have changed so little and has a strong conservative culture.

    The current approach IMHO is dangerous and vulnerable to sudden changes in public opinion. I cite the tiredness of the Canadian and Dutch in support i.e. time to go.

    davidbfpo
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 02-24-2009 at 10:00 PM. Reason: Develop argument and think.

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    The decisive point for the US is our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until we are willing to begin adjusting our foreign policy from that point, working outward, we will simply be gnawing on the edges of the problem. (Note, I am in no way suggesting a military solution to the policy problem we have with the Saudis).
    I have always believed this from the start, as in 911. Especially if you look at it from a crime satnd point. Almost all the suspects were from Saudi, we call that a clue in Law Enforcement. I don't think military action is appropriate now, but I would not have ruled it out following 911. If you really want to get Bin Laden start going after the Bin Laden family dynasty and the massive wealth they have acquired. Go ahead with the Flame Thrower attacks now

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    Default I have read just enough

    about Afghanistan to know what I do not know. I do not know if there is a critical mass of modernizers among the Afghans. I do not know if the Taliban is sufficiently unified to be perceived as a threat in in itself. I do not know if the Taliban are owned/rented by AQ. I do not know if there is an effective alternative to the opium crop. I do not know the tribal relationships in Afghanistan and how those really break out linguistically, religiously, and politically, etc. I do not know what constitutes corruption in Afghan culture - presuming, of course, there is such an animal.

    OTOH I do know that our C2 structure is screwed up. I do know we have not paid more than lip service to the obligations we incurred in 01 and 02. And, I do know that we have yet to develop a strategy either military or whole of govt - combined. I do agree that the British 19th century experience there is relevant as is the Soviet. I just don't know how relevant they are or in what way.

    The problem, then, is to get the information quickly, do the analysis, develop the strategy to include a unified C2, and execute it in short order - which, of course, will be longer than we would wish.

    Cheers

    JohnT

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Thumbs up "Things to do in twenty-oh-two"

    Quote Originally Posted by John T. Fishel View Post
    The problem, then, is to get the information quickly, do the analysis, develop the strategy to include a unified C2, and execute it in short order - which, of course, will be longer than we would wish.
    Whoops. We missed that suspense date. My, how time flies...

    Very good post, John.

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    Default How odd

    Ralph Peters is all about thumping the bad guys hard, then going home with our heads held high, while ready and willing to return to do the same as required. Bob's World is more focused on influencing the population to solve the problem, but amazingly both Bob and Peters are at least in partial agreement on Afghanistan, and it sounds like many SWJ members (to include myself) find ourselves generally in agreement with Peters, which is many ways is telling. One can only hope that those proposing these seemingly pie in the sky policies are seeing a reality that many of us have simply not seen yet.

    I argued in previous posts that a viable alternative strategy was to go into Afghanistan (as one example) as we did initially, but with more force and hammer Al Qaeda, and yes pursue them into Pakistan while we had the political will to do so immediately after 9/11. Then hand over the reigns to whomever with a stiff warning that if AQ resettles in Afghanistan (or anywhere else in the world) we'll pay another visit. Unfortunately we can't re-write history, and the coercion course of action is no longer a feasible option now.

    While only an opinion, from what I'm seeing, I agree with Peters' that it isn't worth the cost to convert Afghanistan into a functional state (assuming it is possible). We have other national interests that we can't pursue because too many of our force has been tied down in OIF and OEF-A, but Peters doesn't really explain how we and our NATO allies would leave Afghanistan with honor at this point. We seem to be a catch 22 position, we know staying isn't practical, but leaving sends the wrong message to the world, and that wrong message will significantly impact our ability to garner support for future military adventures. However, we do have a new administration, so that does allow some room for significant change.

    Peters' pointed out the obvious, in South Asia the main threat is in Pakistan, and sadly Pakistan is in a precarious situation. They desparately need our help, but that help must be provided in a careful manner to avoid further polarizing the people from their government. We don't see much reporting on the food riots, looting, etc. tied to the severe economic crisis in Pakistan, one that rapidly getting worse. The Taliban imposing Sharia in Swat is big news as it should be, but that is only a small part of the overall tragic story unfolding in Pakistan.

    Back to Afghanistan, lets assume we Afghanistan to function as a weak state in the future, what is the so what factor of that for our security interests? The AQ training camps are elsewhere now. The money still flows to the global Jihadists from the Middle East, and while very one likes to point to Saudi, that is not the only "friendly" Middle Eastern nation sending millions of dollars to these Jihad wackos. As Peters' stated, Afghanistan is the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time (it wasn't in 2001/2002). Afghanistan was the geographical center of gravity for Al Qaeda at one time, that is no longer true, and the problem has morphed into a problem set much larger than Al Qaeda, and much larger than Afghanistan and Pakistan, so maybe we should take Peters' advice about the audacity of realism one step further and review our entire strategy to counter Islamist extremism.

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    Default Gotta disagree with Peters....

    Frankly, I find his analysis rather shallow - something that seems to afflict a lot of strategic thinking in our country today. He complains about substituting means for ends and then turns around and spends the rest of the article doing exactly that - writing about means, not ends, and making dubious comparisons to Vietnam. What is his end? What is his strategy? We don't really know. What interests do his preferred COA's serve? We don't really know that either. I'm not sure he's doing much of anything to further the debate here.

    Rather than offer a strategy of his own on which to base coherent COA's, his solution is simply to reduce troops as much as possible - IOW reducing troops IS the strategy. To me that is not a very convincing argument. I think a reasonable argument can be made that one can do more with less in Afghanistan, but Peters doesn't make that argument. If the lack of a coherent and especially unified strategy is the problem, then I fail to see what his options do to solve that problem. Without that kind of basic analysis, what Peters advocates could turn out to be much worse than the present course. Every COA has downsides and risks - to Peters, and many others who've made pretty much the same arguments he makes here in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, the downsides of their preferred positions are irrelevant or ignored. I read a lot of the same kind of arguments when Iraq was at its worst where people could seemingly see no viable solutions. In such cases those views become self-fulfilling because almost all options are eliminated but a few. Absent a more comprehensive examination or at least some minimal cost-benefit analysis, his four options are, to put it bluntly, wishful thinking.

    I also have problems with the assumptions behind several statements in the piece:

    Expending blood and treasure blindly in Afghanistan, we do our best to shut our eyes to the worsening crisis next door in Pakistan, a radicalizing Muslim state with more than five times the population and a nuclear arsenal. We've turned the hose on the doghouse while letting the mansion burn.
    Who is shutting their eyes? The problems in Pakistan have not been ignored, it's just that there isn't much the US can do about them. Furthermore, the implication of the final sentence is that the US is responsible for Pakistani radicalization. There may be some truth to that, but the unintended irony here is that the radicalization is not rooted in the nation-building Peters dislikes, but on punitive measures he does. There's a reason US operations inside Pakistan were secrets (until they were recently and stupidly disclosed).

    Even if we achieved the impossible dream of creating a functioning, unified state in Afghanistan, it would have little effect on the layered crises in the Muslim world.
    Limiting our options to punitive ones is probably not going to ease these crises in the Muslim world Peters is worried about - probably the opposite. Again, every COA has costs and unless and until one examines the downsides of those costs, then they simply wishful thinking.

    There is much more to criticize along similar lines in this piece and I could go on, but I'd like to get back to Rob's question:

    My questions - did he leave anything out? Is his view to narrow, too broad or just right?
    Leaving aside his own lack of any strategy, I think his view is much too narrow and simplistic. As one example, he states we should, "Kill the fanatics." Who would those be? "Fanatics" is a meaningless term given the complexities in Afghanistan. Besides, we've been killing people for almost eight years now, how is that working out?

    But let's look for a minute at other possible COA's. Operating under the assumption that our goal is primarily a negative one - deny AQ and its affiliates an Afghan-based safe haven - there is a continuum of possibilities where the extremes are probably the least tenable. In this case, I do agree with him that we (the US and NATO) cannot create a modern, unified, stable nation inside the territory that we call Afghanistan (something I've commented on here a few times), but that doesn't mean that attempts to create some unity and stability in A-stan are pointless. In other words, it's not an either-or choice - there is a LOT of room between his minimalist "best" and "good" COA's and the unrealistic ideal of Afghanistan as the next South Korea.

    As I've said before in other threads, look next door at Pakistan to see an example of a nation where most of its territory is, in reality, not controlled by the central government. The central government is, to steal a book title, "The strongest tribe" in Pakistan which administers, to a greater or lesser extent, most of the country as colonial possessions. That is, IMO, the best we could hope to achieve in Afghanistan in terms of nation-building, but I don't consider even that an achievable goal within any reasonable time frame.

    Even with that lesser alternative set as the upper limit there are still many options down the line before coming to complete disengagement. Even a weak central government, nominally loyal and dependent upon the US, could act as our long-term reliable-when-we-really-need-them-to-be proxy and keep the conglomeration called the "Taliban" in check.

    Another alternative is greater decentralization where regions are largely autonomous (think Kurdistan). There is the strategy I've mentioned elsewhere of rebuilding and buttressing the old tribal power structures. There are others and they need to be considered as well.

    Regardless of which COA(s) we choose, we cannot limit our options to the punitive expeditions Peters' advocates - ideally those would be rare. Various forms of aid (economic, development) as well as non-punitive military missions (security, training, etc.) are all tools we can use and it doesn't make much sense put most of them back in the shed without good reason, which is exactly what Peters would have us do.

    Finally, this really annoyed me:

    If the impending surge fails to pacify the country, will we send another increment of troops, then another, as we did in Southeast Asia?
    Surely Ralph Peters must know two things: 1. This isn't Vietnam, there is no draft and therefore the amount of escalating we can do is very limited 2. It's even more limited when one considers the logistical realities of operating in Afghanistan. The fear he gins up here and earlier in the piece is unfounded, IMO.

    To close, I agree we need an "audacity of realism," but I think Mr. Peters' op-ed is as mired in the wishful thinking he opposes.

  13. #13
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    Default See where you're coming from ....

    from Ken
    - Best: Agree but would continue development

    - Good: In the first place 'we' told them we would not do that *....
    If we (per Peters) are going to "support Afghan factions with whom we share common enemies", development for them would be a carrot. Or by "development" do you mean for all of Astan ? I assumed the former, but you have learnt me not to ass u me.

    The other question goes to my ignorance of "In the first place 'we' told them we would not do that" - ignorance being my mind blank of any particular document that would create either (1) a legal commitment to stay; or (2) a moral or ethical commitment to stay. With all that's been written or said in the last 7 years, we might have committed to rebuild the entire country.

    Anyway, links to any specific on what "we" told them ?

  14. #14
    Former Member George L. Singleton's Avatar
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    Default Partial reply from one

    The ignore the opium, kill the terrorists statement.

    I agree with killing the terrorists, but do not agree with ignoring the opium. That would be a huge mistake.

  15. #15
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Talking I'm coming from left field...

    Who's on first?

    Development for most of Afghanistan with special emphasis on the carotene. It's good for you!

    "We" have said, IIRC, that "...we erred in the 1980s and just left, we will not do that again, we will not leave you alone..." and dozens of other similar statements over the years as you point out. There is no legal requirement to stay but to me we inherited an ethical requirement to do so by our words. As I've said before, I do not think we should've said we we would stay and fix it (whatever that means) -- but we did say it. Repeatedly. Since we said we would, in public, we really need to do that. One cannot be made to say anything but anything one does say becomes a commitment.

    That's probably why Creighton Abrams said "Generals should be noted for their silences."

    We have abandoned others before and it hurt us -- our abandonment of Viet Nam (another place where we should not have said "we will..."), of the Kurds, earlier (ditto...) and of the Shia in southern Iraq after Desert Storm (ditto again) among others hurt us more internationally than did invading Iraq. The message was you cannot rely on the Americans. That needs to be fixed

    The "we'll stay" comments came early on. Here's a recent one:
    ...And we could have replaced one power person with another. That would have been, I guess, the easy route, and then just left it behind, say we've done our duty and we've upheld the doctrine -- and said, okay, we're now going to take this group, replace them with this group -- and just got out of the way. But that's not -- that, one, didn't learn the lessons of the '80s and the '90s. And secondly, the interest is to build a flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology. And it's not easy work. Afghanistan is a huge country. The road system is not nearly as well developed as a lot of other countries. You're just beginning to develop your resource base in a way that I hope benefits the people of Afghanistan -- after all, it's their resources.
    ...
    told the President that you can count on the United States -- just like you've been able to count on this administration, you'll be able to count on the next administration, as well. It's in our interest that Afghanistan's democracy flourish. It's in America's interest that we forever deny safe haven to people who still want to kill our citizens.
    LINK.

    P.S.

    Here's an early one: LINK
    Last edited by Ken White; 02-25-2009 at 06:51 AM. Reason: P.S.

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    Default Thanks, Ken,

    the 2008 link was exactly what I was looking for.

    That is about as close to an executive agreement as you can get, without committing it to writing. I shudder at what might have been said and done in private.

    That is one reason why Silent Cal ranks high on my POTUS list - and the goats or sheep (and other fauna) on the WH lawn were also a nice touch.

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    Default JMM, do not be too demanding regarding

    international obligations incurred de facto by public statements that are not explicitly written out. Ken's right about the cost of not living up to a verbal committment.

    I recall Pres Bush 41 saying publicly to Panama in the wake of Just Cause that the US would provide $1b to rebuild. Pres Endara, VPs Arias Calderon and Billy Ford and the people of Panama believed him. But when it was all done, the Administration had provided only about half that amount and then sought to show it had met its obligation through an AID report that was all smoke and mirrors. As I said in my SSI monograph in 1992 (also published by Praeger as part of Civil Military Operations in the New World - 1997), "Most Panamanians don't count that way." That incident may - or may not - have contributed to the outcome of negotiations over post 1999 basing rights in Panama where we gave up Howard AFB.

    It all points to the classic lesson that people who work in development learned long ago: Never promise something you can't deliver. It wil always come back to haunt you. (Solid lesson for COIN, SFA, and SASO too.)

    Cheers

    JohnT

  18. #18
    Council Member J Wolfsberger's Avatar
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    Default Request for clarification

    1. Afghanistan is neither a state nor a nation. It is a geographic expression for a region wherein live a number of tribal groupings. There are a few neutral areas, e.g. Kabul, but they are not representative of either the region or the people living there. Confusing the educated minority living in Kabul, for example, as being representative of the entire region in terms of education, hopes, aspirations, modernity, etc. is a guaranteed route to failure. One of the first steps on the route is any notion of establishing any sort of Western model of a representative government in A'stan. Am I missing something?

    2. The surge in troops didn't turn anything around in Iraq. The new strategy did. Successfully executing that strategy in the allocated time required more troops. A simple surge in troops into A'stan without a substantially revised strategy recognizing the points I made above, and establishing clear, achievable military and political goals is the worst kind of eyewash: the kind that gets good people killed to no useful effect. Again, am I missing something?

    3. A lesson from an old course in International Relations: The best equipped and trained military in the world does not deter war. Prestige, the reputation for being able to effect one's will, does. In the case of A'stan, walking away is not an option: the message received will be that the US can be defeated by chipping away until it loses resolve, tucks tail and slinks home. (Anyone who doubts that is the message that will be received, PM me about terms for the bet. ) I agree with Peters that we should "stop pretending Afghanistan's a real state." But I also think every one of his options damages US prestige to one degree or another. That loss of prestige will embolden the jihadis, and ultimately lead to a worse problem, broader based, than we face today. I think we can do better. Again, am I missing something?
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  19. #19
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Thumbs up No.

    Works for me. We need to quit screwing around like a bunch of idiots...

  20. #20
    Council Member J Wolfsberger's Avatar
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    Default Counterpoint

    As an alternative to Ralph Peters' five options, see Tell Me Why We’re There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), by Nathaniel C. Fick, David Kilcullen, John A. Nagl, Vikram J. Singh.

    Maybe it will spark a discussion of what our strategy should be.
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