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DISPUTATIONS: False Dichotomy

We have more options in Afghanistan than Biddle lets on.

This summer, Stephen Biddle wrote one of the more influential and oft-cited articles in support of the current U.S. mission in Afghanistan. In “Is It Worth It?” in The American Interest, Biddle argued that by the narrowest of margins, the United States had strategic interests that necessitated the maintenance of a robust military presence in Afghanistan.

In “Is There a Middle Way?” in the most recent issue of TNR, Biddle has focused instead on the operational elements of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. He argues that a mission oriented around half-measures—such as paying off Afghan warlords or building up the Afghan security services—as opposed to a fully-integrated counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that incorporates all of these measures is destined to fail. But then as now, Biddle’s argument is predicated on a dubious straw man, which reduces the Afghanistan debate to a simplistic, binary argument between two unfeasible options.

In the summer, Biddle based his argument on the suspect notion that policymakers faced the choice of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or prolonged American engagement. Now, Biddle’s straw men are the disparate elements of a counter-insurgency operation, which he claims will fail on their own but which are likely to succeed if pursued in concert. But neitherfull-fledged COIN or so-called half measures are reflective of the diverse set of possible scenarios that the White House could andshould be considering. If anything, they only muddy the waters because neither strategy has a strong chance of succeeding or even being implemented.

Biddle claims that “integrated COIN offers a higher probability of success than any of the proposed middle ways; middle ways are cheaper, but also likelier to fail.” Yet nothing in his article actually supports this argument. Biddle does not make the affirmative case for why a COIN mission would work; and he doesn’t fully and faithfully engage with the alternative approaches for stabilizing Afghanistan and securing U.S. interests there. Quite simply, there is no evidence that the sum he embraces is greater than the parts he dismisses.

Worst of all, Biddle ignores the many reasons why a full-fledged COIN mission in Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed: the lack of Afghan government support and capacity, an ineffective Afghan Army and police force, a growing decline in public support among U.S. and NATO countries, the continued presence of Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, and the lack of civilian support for a COIN mission. Instead, Biddle picks apart the so-called middle way approach to counter-insurgency by treating each policy recommendation in isolation, as if the recommendations of COIN opponents are to focus on just fighting a drone war or just trying to improve aid delivery.

If Biddle provided the same scrutiny to his own counter-insurgency argument, he might notice that it is built on a precarious house of cards. For example, he argues:

The pieces of orthodox COIN strategy interact: security enables development and governance, development and governance enhance security, governance facilitates counterterrorism, counterterrorism improves security, security enables negotiation and reconciliation. Each is a valuable complement to the others; none is a viable substitute.

But what reason is there to believe that these hopelessly ambitious efforts will all come together successfully? If even one element of this strategy is unsustainable—say, for example, the Afghan government providing effective governance—then doesn’t that undermine future economic development, long-term security, and eventually the entire COIN strategy? In poker terms, Biddle’s argument is the equivalent of betting all your chips on an inside straight draw. And then doing it again on the next hand.

Biddle’s argument would be more interesting if he engaged an actual alternative strategy—or considered what disparate parts of a hybrid counterterrorism/counterinsurgency approach that he dismisses in isolation might work if fit together. For example, Biddle makes the uncontestable point that training the Afghan army will be a time-consuming process and in of itself is not a short-term solution. But what if ramped-up training is done in concert with a more aggressive targeting of the Taliban (an argument made quite effectively here by Colonel Gian Gentile) and a concerted effort to bring reconcilable Taliban into the political fold? Or what about a counter-terrorism mission, along the lines suggested in this recent piece by Austin Long, that is done in concert with increased training of the Afghan military and more focused development and aid efforts in the north and west of the country where the Taliban are least popular, but increasingly making inroads? This is not to say that either of these two scenarios is guaranteed to work but instead to suggest that we should be a bit more creative in thinking about various hybrid scenarios that might be effective in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of Biddle’s argument is that he ignores one of the more interesting alternative approaches to a robust COIN mission in Afghanistan: namely regional prioritization, a containment strategy in which the United States and NATO consolidate political and security gains made in the north while reducing the military and development footprint in the south and east, where their efforts have faced the greatest challenges. In fact, Biddle argues that “there is evidence to suggest that civilians will accept foreign forces when these are strong enough to bring security in exchange.” Yet he makes no differentiation between how different regions and ethnic groups have and will continue to respond to the entry of foreign forces.

In the end, Biddle argues that “COIN offers a higher probability of success than any of the proposed middle ways.” But the middle ways that Biddle dismisses are not the most likely alternative scenarios in Afghanistan, and there is no good reason to take it on faith that the COIN strategy he heartily endorses will succeed. In the end, one doesn’t get the sense that Biddle is really interested in engaging with an alternative strategy; but rather defending the one that he thinks will work best. While that might serve as an effective debating tool, it doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out the right strategy for success in Afghanistan.