Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:47 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:47 | SYDNEY

Cost and risk in Afghanistan


Sam Roggeveen


7 October 2009 14:08

After just two instalments, the series of posts I promised about Afghanistan has stalled. It was a rash commitment to make, and given I can't fulfill it in good time, best to just go back to commenting in a more ad hoc way about Afghanistan. 

To that end, a point about the 'surgical strike' debate that has cropped up lately on the blogosphere. Those who advocate a much reduced coalition presence in Afghanistan argue that you don't need tens of thousands of boots on the ground to take care of the al Qaeda threat. As George Will argued in the Washington Post, much of that mission can be accomplished using air power and special forces.

Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal has also weighed in, noting the rather impressive performance of America's fleet of unmanned aircraft in thinning al Qaeda's ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Against this we have to weigh the potentially disastrous long-term implications of using air power, which David Kilcullen says has 'an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability. (Air strikes) increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan.'

Nor can the intelligence value of all those boots on the ground be overlooked. As Kilcullen argued in the same congressional testimony, there's less incentive for the Afghan Government and people to offer intelligence if the coalition has abandoned its counter-insurgency against the Taliban to focus on al Qaeda's threat to the West.

My point is that advocates of a narrower and much smaller Afghanistan mission need to make realistic promises about our preferred strategy. It is implausible to argue that the technological wizardry of the US military can be a cheap and easy substitute for the current policy. It isn't. If the coalition left only a very light footprint in Afghanistan and focused solely on targeting al Qaeda, we would have to accept the risk that al Qaeda's presence there — and therefore the threat to the West — could grow.

As with all strategic policy, this is a question of balancing costs and risks. My argument would be that the al Qaeda threat is not serious enough to warrant the costs of the current mission. We can afford to risk a slightly higher threat if it means incurring much lower costs.

Photo courtesy of the US Air Force.