February 25, 2010
It's brilliant, really: a mini-war with minimum bloodshed, followed by a mini-MacArthur stabilization plan, a quintessentially American combination of prudent military force and benevolent reconstruction.
Rather than attempting to pacify all of Afghanistan at once — finally recognized as impossible in a country dominated by feudal war-lords — the American military settled on a localized strategy. They would pick a large city infested for years by the Taliban — in this case, Marja, population 80,000. They would give the enemy two weeks' notice of the upcoming invasion in the hope that most of the foe would flee, thus minimizing the devastating door-to-door combat that characterized the early days of the Iraq War, and with it minimizing civilian casualties. After two or three days of fighting — that was the initial prediction — the Taliban that remained would be taken care of — the die-hards would either die or get out of town, and the rest, persuaded more by their pocketbooks than by ideology, would be bought off.
Once the city had been secured, an indigenous government would be set up (much like General Douglas MacArthur did in postwar Japan), guided by career Afghan bureaucrats from Kabul: "We've got government in a box, ready to roll in," said Commanding General Stanley McChrystal before the incursion began. Schools, medical facilities, and rebuilding projects would be provided, mainly staffed by local people. Opium-poppy fields and heroin-processing plants would be replaced by legitimate agriculture. Finally, with all running smoothly, the U.S. and British troops would withdraw, leaving a stable and harmonious city-state and a model for similar actions in the future.
As David Sanger of the New York Times wrote recently: "In the Bush years, the rallying cry when operations like Marja began was ‘clear, build and hold.' President Obama has added a fourth step, ‘transfer.' At the end of the three-month-long review of Afghan strategy, Mr. Obama vowed he would begin no military operation unless a plan was in place to transfer authority promptly to the Afghans."
The idea is so beautiful, so simple, so American — but will it work?
The "clear" phase has already met with obstacles. The advance notice apparently did make a significant number of the Taliban leave, but it also gave them plenty of time to riddle the city with roadside bombs, which the military acknowledged it had not anticipated — imagine that. The allied troops have also been meeting unexpectedly strong resistance from resourceful Taliban snipers, and have been impeded in their efforts by stringent "rules of engagement" designed to avoid civilian casualties. The predictions of two or three days to subdue the Taliban have turned into a month or more.
Meanwhile, the "build" phase has already started. Two "schools in a box" — something I guess like FEMA trailers with desks and supplies for 25 students each, and presumably complete with teachers — have opened, and over a hundred locals have been hired for maintenance tasks, a small but quick infusion of cash into the economy.
The "hold" and "transfer" phases will be the most difficult to implement and sustain, because as configured they are much more difficult for the Americans to direct and control.
The news on "hold" does not look particularly good, if it ever did. The Afghan military, which was supposed to take the lead in the conflict and provide a friendly and familiar face to the occupation, has in fact lagged behind the American and British forces, suffering only two deaths to the allies' dozen. Its field commander, Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, last week proffered a fanciful account of the operation that conflicted entirely with the American version. Elsewhere, defections of Afghan troops to the Taliban have occurred, and there are reports that soldiers' wages are being siphoned off by their paymasters.
The Obama extension, "transfer," which is really the linchpin of the operation, seems like pure idealism. If, as the State Department has acknowledged, the Afghan central government is corrupt, why should we expect that any government set up in Marja could be any less so? As easy as it may be to buy off the Taliban, it may be just as easy for the Taliban to buy everybody back, including the government in a box.
The Marja project, hopeful as it looks now to Gen. McChrystal, may be hopelessly utopian. "Clear, build, hold, and transfer," though not called such at the time, was a strategy that worked in postwar Japan and Germany because those countries had a long history of social order and, astonished at the absence of Allied retribution, embraced their rebuilding plans enthusiastically.
It's different in Afghanistan. Nation-building can't work if there isn't a nation to build. The city-state experiment, because of its modest size, offers a better chance. But, I would predict, not much better.