Kissinger on the sad strategic reality of US engagement in Afghanistan

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Former Secretary of State Kissinger appears at State Department in Washington

Henry Kissinger had a sobering op-ed in the Washington Post Tuesday that laid out the reality of the US position in Afghanistan.

First, the fundamental conundrum of “nation building” in a fake state:

But nation-building ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups.

He then goes on to say he supported the surge engineered by President Obama, an effort that had the unfortunate effect of giving lie to the notion that insufficient resources was the primary reason why nation-building has failed. That effort, he states, has “reached its limit.”

So the essential question becomes, according to Kissinger, How to create an regional security structure to oversee that “contest” cited above?

And this is where the larger Catch-22 of this war becomes apparent: under both Bush-Cheney and Obama-Biden, the US refused to regionalize the nation-building effort to any extent, which would have been the only way possible to reduce the usual Afghan dynamic regarding the “foreign aggressor,” because it would have signaled a long-term commitment by incentivized regional partners. Of course, it also could have devolved into a “great game” dynamic, but guess what? ¬†America’s unilateralist failure (namely, we try to nation build from the other side of the planet while seeking to deny the neighbors any effective role – save destabilizing Pakistan) invariably pushes us down the same dangerous path anyway. [And no, bringing NATO allies along doesn’t make this any less “unilateralist” as far as the region is concerned.]

In the end, we were always going to be forced to regionalize the solution-set. We’ve denied that essential reality all along, believing that if we dumped in enough resources, like we did with Iraq, it would work out. But Afghanistan is not Iraq – no oil and not much of a nation. Plus, it’s just not important enough to justify that massive level of expenditure.

So here we are, right where we always knew we’d end up: we now must construct and/or submit to some regional security scheme that oversees the inevitable contest among Afghanistan’s many tribes and seeks to keep it contained. We won’t be in charge of this, even as we can seek to influence it. And yes, we could have moved to this inevitable reality years ago, but in our arrogance, we kept this show as “America’s war” – a fool’s errand from the get-go. Obama has done nothing to change that underlying attitude, even as he’s effectively symmetricized the fight with al-Qaeda in the region by making it our bad-asses (special forces, CIA paramilitaries, drones) against their bad-asses. But those successes have almost no bearing on the Afghanistan nation-building project, which should never be confused with the “war.”

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

There was never any “war” to be won in Afghanistan; there is simply that “contest” to be managed in a way that keeps Afghanistan from becoming a dangerous sanctuary for transnational terrorists. Long term, those regional neighbors become the primary agents of any globalization connectivity that ultimately subdues the situation by changing the incentive structure for all involved – but that was never something America could build from the other side of the planet. In the meantime, those same regional neighbors were always more incentivized to deal with the near-term security threats, as indicated by the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. We have consistently ignored that regional body, preferring to do it our way. We are now coming to the conclusion that our way isn’t working and will not be decisive under any conditions.

By the way, it’s becoming clear that the SCO is moving toward some new regional security scheme that would include Af-Pak. Why? It has no choice, meaning it is highly incentivized.

And so the regionalization of the solution-set that we have long denied is now incontrovertibly thrust upon us by our continuing failure at nation building. Some wags will invariably dub this “losing Afghanistan,” but they will be wrong.

There is no strategic surprise in any of this. It just took us bullheaded Americans this long to realize we can’t “fix” Afghanistan on our own, while excluding virtually all of the neighbors. This was simply one long “duh!” in the making.