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America’s Very Canadian Surge In Afghanistan

December 14, 2009

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), Prussian officer and military theorist.

One of the more interesting books I read this year was an abridged version of On War, the early 19th century classic by the Prussian officer and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. On War is probably best known these days for the assertion that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means”, as the wording goes in my edition. I’m aware that this strikes some people as ruthless cynicism, but von Clausewitz was actually making a simple empirical point. War is a term for what happens when a state (or a non-state actor, like a rebel movement) resorts to massive force in order to achieve a policy objective, such as securing control over resources or deposing a particular head of government, and someone else decides to resist. The nature of the policy objective determines the scope of the war, at least initially, and the conditions that define victory for each side.

I found myself thinking about On War as I read about US President Barack Obama’s decision to send a “surge” of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. Speculation in advance of the announcement focused on the number of men and women to be deployed, but von Clausewitz would presumably have said that the more important question was what exactly they were supposed to do. What American policy, in other words, is now being continued by means of the deployment of 30,000 soldiers?

Von Clausewitz, who wrote about war with a dispassionate, almost chilling clarity, would probably not have been satisfied with the answers to this central question that Obama offered in his speech announcing the surge. However, Obama did say:

Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

This sounds generally realistic, and laudably modest. To “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan” may be a bit of a stretch, although at least Obama didn’t threaten to depilate, disembowel and defenestrate them while he was at it. However, reversing the Taliban’s momentum is more achievable than bringing about the Taliban’s total doom, destruction and devastation. And strengthening the capacity of the Afghan government is similarly more achievable than turning it into a model liberal democracy, or even making it decent, disciplined and decorous.

A fascinating account of the decision-making process in the White House describes a shift in thinking that apparently took place in October:

Said a senior White House adviser who took extensive notes of the meeting: “The big moment when the mission became a narrower one was when we realized we’re not going to kill every last member of the Taliban.”

This would be more impressive if Canadian politicians hadn’t been publicly making this same point months earlier (and astute commentators years earlier, but that’s another matter). At the beginning of March, the CBC reported that Stephen Harper had declared, on American television for crying out loud, that the insurgency in Afghanistan could not be completely defeated. If this came as a revelation to Obama’s team in October, one can only suggest that they should have been paying more attention to what their counterparts on Her Majesty’s side of the border were saying.

In general, it’s surprising how closely America’s plans in Afghanistan have come to mirror our own. The basic idea of working temporarily to weaken the insurgency and strengthen Afghan society and governance, and then leaving in 2011, is straight out of Canada’s playbook.

Questions remain, of course. Gwynne Dyer, whose analysis of the surge plan is predictably worth reading, thinks that talk of al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan is overblown and that Obama is really just hoping for a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of American troops and the moment when the Taliban take over. However, even Dyer concedes that the Taliban “would still have to overcome all the other ethnic forces in the country”. One important force, though not precisely an ethnic one, is a grouping of Tajik leaders along with a token Pashtun (Hamid Karzai) and at least one battle-hardened Uzbek (Abdul Rashid Dostum), otherwise known as the Afghan government. For the next year and a half, our job – and America’s, and the rest of NATO’s – will be to hold off the Taliban and help this motley crew of Afghan warlords and oligarchs build up the military strength and civil authority that will be needed to stand alone when the time comes.

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