For months, I've been hollering to my friends and colleagues about how progressives must not simply reboot the language and tactics for protesting the Iraq war to protesting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. "No protest without a policy alternative" I've lectured... "If you want "out now" and you still feel obligated to the Afghan people, then come up with a set of options so you will be heard"...etc. etc.... Having worked on Capitol Hill during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, I witnessed how informed critics were shunned into silence by the White House and their cronies in Congress. We can't let that happen again.
But we now supposedly have a non-military plan and many of us remain confused and conflicted. Seeking an alternative to the word "escalation" to describe U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, I communicated with deployed or recently back friends (who range from politically agnostic to progressive, civilian and military. All big picture types. All government experienced) and they each offered a different answer. As someone who supports a long term commitment to Afghanistan, I've realized that the most I can do to improve the critical public debate is to organize and relay their first-hand perceptions. The only thing that is clear to me right now is this: How Afghanistan policy is being explained is not how it is being experienced.
Question: Is "escalation" an accurate description of our policy? And six responses
1. It is definitely the wrong word. It is not a meaningful military word without a detailed discussion of strategies and tactics. It seems to be used as a put down -- by those who aren't familiar with any of the substance or details. The issue in Afghanistan isn't escalation and the number of troops, the issue is what you do with them once they're there. The difference between what we we're doing in Iraq (before the change in command and the surge) and what we will be doing in Afghanistan is both absolutely critical and nearly invisible to those who don't have a sharp eye focused on the details.
2. I am in all-Pashtun area and more U.S. troops will kill us. The "light footprint" of the earlier days is gone. How would you feel if you woke up and there were 20 forward operating bases with foreign solders... MRAPS and Strykers coming through your village? We are creating insurgents by our presence... and even more so since the current government is seen as fraudulent. Are we going to side with the occupiers and the corrupt government? We are feeding the Taliban's information campaign -- everything from wild parties at the U.S. Embassy to bombing those stolen tankers. As for the "civilian surge?" It is a joke. The State Department is just throwing warm bodies in and buffing up their statistics. There is no accounting for special needs and skills. In 2002 and 2003 I went everyplace, working closely with Afghans. Now for me to go to a meeting it takes four MRAPS or similar tank-type vehicles with a platoon of soldiers for protection. This is not going to lead to substantial reconstruction and development.
3. What the Congress and public need to know is that the ground situation in Afghanistan a few years back was a mission agreed to by the international forces -- the job was stabilization (which is more about building institutions) But the situation has dramatically deteriorated...many ideological opponents and home grown insurgents are gaining ground. And the US policy changed, to dismantle, disrupt Al Qaeda etc. What we are seeing with this new strategy is initial reassessments of the ground requirements. The request for more troops are to meet these new requirements. It will take more of everything i.e. loafers and boots -- to see demonstrable effects. Is this an escalation? I think, yes. Because this approach and its quality and quantity requirements will take more of everything... The difference in opinion of the mission between the U.S. and NATO and the United Nations, btw, is a great source of disunity. Allies still see long term development as the goal.
4. "Escalation" has politicized the military... note the small "p". It is not their fault, it is because there is no political counterpart, no comprehensive political plan and not enough people on the ground to do it. We need a new framework altogether and since the only agency with any wherewithal is the Defense Department, the American public understands the problem through a counterinsurgency lens... this will have to be undone... it takes six years to create a special operations soldier... we need their equivalent on the civilian side, but we don't have six years.
5. I think "escalation" is the wrong word because it denotes a primarily military solution. And that's not what we need. In Afghanistan, we need an aid worker for every soldier. And we're nowhere close to getting that -- despite a focus on development promised by the administration. We're still relying on airpower. I still think the mission in Afghanistan is a good one, but I'm losing faith that the U.S. government, the U.S. military and NATO have the ability and will to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign. We need to commit to a full blown counterinsurgency mission, a limited counterterrorism mission, or leave.
6. The complicating factor is that as you bring more troops in -- even if the intent is to radically change the approach to civilian protection -- you get an increased level of violence. As you seek to protect the population, those who seek to control them come after you, or you are presented with opportunities to go after them. From the outside looking only at levels of violence or casualties, it looks like "escalation" is an accurate description. Even if its not.
So is "escalation" accurate? 2 no. 2 yes. 2 maybe. This is going to be a tough political season.