Alex Massie

Afghanistan: A Modest Case for Dithering

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My old chum, and former boss, Iain Martin writes that time is, in fact, of the essence in Afghanistan and that Barack Obama needs to make a decision:

We cannot go on like this indefinitely - making some progress but never winning, especially when money is so tight. We need to either commit more troops and firepower, get a move on, surge troop numbers, take the fight anew to the Taliban and aim for victory. Or if we don’t fancy that we can slim down our presence dramatically, fund the anti-Talban forces and back them up with special forces support and airpower.

The worst option appears to be staying in limbo-land and sacrificing lives for years with no prospect of eventual victory. The choice is for President Obama. Contrary to there being no need to rush, it’s decision time.

Now there's obviously something to this. But I'm not sure it's entirely persuasive. Apart from anything else, I wonder if Iain is simplfying matters somewhat by presenting the options Obama (and NATO) face in this fashion. Choose either A or B, he says, but for god's sake choose. But the problem is surely that neither A nor B are terribly attractive options. Nor, significantly, does either come with any kind of guarantee of success. 

Now perhaps it doesn't matter whether one chooses A or B. Perhaps both could be made to work. But it's not obvious which one will work and the consequences of picking the wrong one seem, potentially, quite severe. In other words, perhaps the negative consequences of making the "wrong" choice are greater than the benefits to be gained from making the "right" choice? That seems  unpleasantly possible.

If that's the case then refusing to choose actually has a certain logic. The status quo may be imperfect but it is at least a known imperfection, not an uknown one. Iain suggests we need to put all our chips on red or on black and implies, I think, that it doesn't much matter which. But perhaps you don't have to play at all!

Holding or containing operations are not terribly satisfactory but they may sometimes be the least worst option. And until it becomes a little clearer what realistic options there are in Afghanistan it seems wise to wait and see for as long as possible. Caution isn't always the worst policy and among the most important rules of war is surely Avoid Defeat.

One other thing: yes, we've had troops in Afghanistan for eight years. But the war as it's currently being fought hasn't been going on for as long as that. Furthermore, Iain suggests that the cost in men and material has been "immense". In one sense, of course, this is true. But if the Afghan campaign is considered a matter of real national security - and even the "counter-terrorism" strategy advocated by the "slim down" side of the argument agrees that it is - then a) casualties are an inevitable consequence of state policy and b) in this respect the cost has not been immense. 

That sounds cold-hearted I know and, understandably, can be of no consolation to the families and friends of fallen servicemen. But it's true nonetheless. Just as we understood that there was what might be termed an "acceptable level of casualties" in Northern Ireland so that brutal calculation applies to Afghanistan. It is not, for reasons detailed here, another Vietnam.

Muddling through doesn't sound very heroic and it's not a very noble thing to die for. But our Afghan policy is, in some ways, defined by negatives: it's hard to say what victory looks like, but defeat is easier to recognise. We may hope that our troops in Helmand can do some good but perhaps their main role is to prevent things from getting worse. As I say, none of it is satisfactory and much of it is pretty grim. But that's where we seem to be and it's not clear, to me at least, that the choices are quite so clear as some suggest, nor that, as others argue, the act of chooing is more important than the actual choice that's made.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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