An article in the Wall Street Journal sums up the increased focus being placed by various media on military operations in Afghanistan, titled "Clock Ticks for White House to Show Gains in Afghanistan:"
"Washington is about to become fixated on a number: the number of troops President Barack Obama wants to add in Afghanistan.
"And that's appropriate, as far as it goes. Each American deployed, after all, represents a life put on the line.
"But there are two other questions perhaps more important to the Obama administration's effort to revive America's fortunes in Afghanistan. The first: Can the administration convince Washington that a significantly different strategy already is in place? And second, is the timeline for that strategy fast enough that it will show progress before political support collapses?
"...the perception of the American effort that takes hold in Washington in the next few weeks is crucial. The tendency now is for Americans to see Afghanistan with a combination of weariness and wariness: weariness because the fight the U.S. and its allies are waging has, in some form, been under way for eight years; wariness because of a growing sense that the longstanding American goal of constructing a stable and effective Afghan central government that can keep Islamic militants in check is simply not achievable."
This is combined with a view in the White House and elsewhere that Afghanistan is a theater of war that fell into disrepair due to a concentration of military planning and forces elsewhere (primarily, Iraq):
"Pentagon and administration leaders alike argue that this does represent a fresh start because Afghanistan was starved of troops, funds and serious policy attention for much of the past eight years. "We've badly resourced this for so long," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. "It's a very complex engagement, and now it's a civilian and a military strategy."
"In fact, "underresourced" is the phrase of the hour when it comes to Afghanistan, repeated by military officials and outside advisers to summarize why they think things have slid backward. It means, in a nutshell, that in focusing on the war in Iraq, the U.S. has substantially shortchanged the fight in Afghanistan, in both manpower and money.
"Anthony Cordesman and Erin Fitzgerald, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have just published a study that attempts to quantify the "underresourced" assertion. (Mr. Cordesman's observations are far more than casual; he was part of a team that helped Gen. McChrystal in his just-completed assessment of strategy in Afghanistan.)
"The CSIS report chronicles the extent to which resources flowed to Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan since 2001. Its blunt conclusion: "In the case of the Afghan War, the United States underfunded the conflict to the point where it risked defeat." It was only in the past year, the report says, "some seven years after the war in Afghanistan became a major U.S. strategic commitment, when the U.S. began to fund the war seriously."
"Significantly, the White House has picked up precisely this theme. "We underresourced Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, OK?" White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said to reporters this week."
There is no doubt that the shift in strategy and deployment of additional soldiers the past 2 years in Iraq diverted attention, critical planning resources, and the on-the-ground tools required to succeed in Afghanistan, beyond simply maintaining a semblence of stability around key population centers. While efforts in Iraq began to result in sustainable and positive gains, terrorists and supporting elements retreated to friendlier confines outside of Iraq, and particularly in Central Asia, i.e. where the pressure being placed on them at the time was weakest.
However, if we want the resources and tools needed to succeed in these efforts, we need to present the challenge in a way that frames our efforts as more than simply winning or losing Afghanistan or Iraq. As many in the media and current White House purposefully retreat from the term "War on Terror," the greatest risk is to isolate the conversation to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The beauty of the term "War on Terror" rests in the fact that it paralleled Al Qaeda's own "war on the West," purposefully neglecting mention of specific countries, and by doing so, allowing planners of operations and strategy to view the war we are facing for what it truly is--borderless.
Perceived in this way, our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply subsets of the greater war for Central Asia, and by extension the entire "Gap" as defined by Dr. Thomas Barnett. If we aim to understand this war, we must understand the architecture that underlies the operational capabilities of our enemies as well as that of our own. Analyzing the links of terrorism and supporting elements in Afghanistan, for example, will not only lead one into neighboring Pakistan, but other border countries such as Iran and Kazakhstan, and from there to countries in our own backyards. This perspective should extend to an understanding of the economic, infrastructural, and political currents across Afghanistan's borders. History Guy at HG's World made clear the risks in losing this perspective in a post titled "Riskless War = Losing the High Ground."
It is true that U.S. leaders have discussed the importance of coordinating strategy and activities with border countries in relation to Afghanistan operations, as was also done with Iraq. But with both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, execution of this approach has produced at best mixed results. This has been well explained by Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal back in March as part of an analysis of the U.S. strategy put forth by President Obama:
"7. International/Regional cooperation: The US will seek to resolve problems in Afghanistan by working together with Afghanistan's neighbors and the major players in the region. President Obama believes these countries share a common goal: the security of Afghanistan.
""[T]ogether with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region -- our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China," Obama said. "None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development."
"Analysis: This same recommendation was made by the Iraq Study Group with respect to security in Iraq. No working group was formed, and Syria and Iran, the two nations most responsible for aiding al Qaeda and the Sunni and Shia terror groups, were not consulted on the Iraq security plan. Iraq has achieved a large measure of success despite the lockout of Syria and Iran.
"Not all nations share the same goals in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are long-time rivals, with radically different visions for Afghanistan, as well as for the rest of South and Central Asia.
"Iran does not wish for the Taliban to regain power, but supports the group to bleed US and NATO forces and keep Afghanistan destabilized. Iran has no interest in having a secure, pro-US/NATO Afghan government on its eastern border. US military officials have repeatedly accused the Iranians of supplying arms to Taliban forces. Moreover, Iran currently hosts a substantial al Qaeda network on its soil. This has been confirmed by the US Treasury Department, the Saudis, and various other pieces of evidence. Iran has repeatedly obfuscated international efforts to secure the transfer of senior al Qaeda operatives living within its borders, including one of al Qaeda’s chief military leaders, Saif al Adel.
"And while China and Russia do not wish for Islamist extremists, which threaten their own security, to regain power in Afghanistan, it is likely in their interests to have the US expend military and political capital in a protracted fight. For example, Russia has opposed the US's basing interests in Central Asia, while there are reports that Chinese arms have been supplied (via Iran) to the Taliban."
Behind the difficulties and realities defined succinctly by Bill, he is essentially making the point that our efforts to fight the larger cross-border war that includes Afghanistan and Iraq must move beyond rhetoric and superficial working groups and funding programs. If our counterterrorism efforts fail to dismantle the full architecture built up by terrorists and supporting elements the past 50 years, what we are able to dismantle and destroy in Iraq and Afghanistan will simply remain offline portions of this network until they can be built up again via the architecture that remains strong in such proximity as Pakistan and Iran, or in further locations throughout the non-integrating Gap.
General McChrystal rightly stated the following on June 2, during his Senate confirmation testimony:
""Afghans face a combination of challenges – a resilient Taliban insurgency, increasing levels of violence, [a] lack of governance capability, persistent corruption, lack of development in key areas, illicit narcotics and malign influences from other countries," said Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. "There is no simple answer. We must conduct a holistic counterinsurgency campaign and we must do it well."
Three months later, the article "General Seeks Shift in Afghan Strategy" appeared in the Wall Street Journal, hinting at the overwhelming task at hand and implying that enough resources have not been applied to a holistic campaign--rather, the focus has narrowed significantly and perhaps dangerously:
"Gen. Stanley McChrystal said conditions on the ground were "serious," but he expressed confidence the war could still be won if the U.S. and its allies better coordinate their efforts and focus more heavily on protecting the Afghan populace from Taliban violence and intimidation.
Once in February, Michael Yon asked "How much is Afghanistan really worth to us?" I would take this even further and ask how much is the Gap really worth to us, because Afghanistan, as with Iraq, is symbolic of the fight we face in integrating the Gap with the rest of our more connected, more peaceful and more resilient world.