Buying Time in Afghanistan

It's been 8 years since we took to the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan to seek out and destroy the Taliban and the Al Qaeda community that had thrived there. It bears repeating... 8 years. Following a successful campaign to kill as many Al Qaeda as possible and to remove the Taliban from power, we settled in to a conflict that slowly lost focus, resources and general public interest. Iraq took center stage and we became consumed politically, logistically and militarily with our efforts there.

As the much debated and ultimately lauded surge took hold in Iraq, we found the focus shifting back to Afghanistan. And because we like our stories to be nicely simple -- with a beginning, middle and end -- the success of the Iraq surge became the hoped for roadmap to victory in Afghanistan. If it works in Iraq, so the story goes, it'll work in Afghanistan.
This supposes that the two battlegrounds have more similarities than differences. And it supposes that we have the same essential endgame in mind for both countries...a stable, possibly recognizable form of democratic government with an ability to secure their population, infrastructure and government from the destructive extremist elements of the Muslim world. And finally, it implies that our politicians and the public have the stomach for a conflict that realistically could last another eight years and likely more.

It's that last point, concern over our staying power, that drives my pessimism more than anything. Aside from the significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan when discussing counterinsurgency, and not dwelling too long on the inability of any other power stretching back to Alexander the Great to install or impose a foreign concept or structure of governing, its our short term focus and national attention deficit disorder that leads me to believe we are mistaken to escalate the Afghan effort.

The latest strategy as enunciated by the very experienced and outstanding General McChrystal refers to the counterinsurgency in the short term of a year to 18 months to turn things in our favor. That's like a couple days in Afghan time. The enemy is enormously patient and, importantly, has nowhere else to go. A year to 18 months? We've been there 8 years. If we wanted to be brutally honest with the American public, we would present a plan that mapped out U.S. military and civilian involvement in Afghanistan for the next 20 years at least. That's the sort of commitment we would need to get close to realizing our lofty ambitions for Afghanistan.

Without that, we're simply buying time until the day we leave.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector and has recently returned to Diligence LLC, a company he co-founded in 2000, as President. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on counterterrorism, intelligence and homeland security. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.