Asia Crisis

COLUMN-Catch-22 and the long war in Afghanistan: Bernd Debusmann

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Listening to the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the phrase Catch-22 comes to mind. It was the title of a best-selling 1961 satirical novel on World War II by Joseph Heller and entered the popular lexicon to denote a conundrum without a winning solution.

Example: You can't get work without experience and you can't get experience without work.

In the context of the war in Afghanistan, soon entering its ninth year and already longer than the Vietnam war, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-September heard a description of the Afghan conundrum worthy of joining a list of examples to explain Catch-22.

"You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development or development without security."

That observation came from Rory Stewart, an expert witness with a more intimate understanding of Afghanistan than most -- he walked, alone, across the entire country (the size of Texas, twice the size of Vietnam) on a trek that began two weeks after U.S. troops and bombers drove the Taliban government from power in 2002.

That was the "good war," a widely-applauded act of vengeance and punishment for the Taliban for having played host to Osama bin Laden and his fellow al Qaeda planners of the Sept. 11 mass murder of 3,000 people in Manhattan and Washington. The assault on Afghanistan had a clear rationale but the war gradually morphed into a nation-building exercise that defied simple answers to the question "why are we there?"

Stewart, now a professor at Harvard and head of a foundation in Kabul dedicated to reviving the Afghan capital's historic commercial center, was one of several experts asked to analyze the state of the war in Afghanistan and suggest ways forward after President Barack Obama decided the Afghan strategy he announced on March 27 needed re-appraising.

The overall aim Obama then laid out in what he described as a "comprehensive new strategy ... the conclusion of a careful policy review" did not differ greatly from the goals laid out, but never given enough resources, by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Defeating the Taliban, dismantling the al Qaeda network, training Afghans to take over from U.S. troops, helping set up an effective government.

That last goal, possibly the most difficult, appears as "Objective 3b" in a draft paper from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It lays out metrics to measure progress. Objective 3b is to "promote a more capable, accountable and effective government in Afghanistan," to be measured by "demonstrable action ... against corruption."


Much of the public debate on revising strategy has focused on troop levels - 10,000 more? 30,000? 40,000? - and relatively little on exactly how the United States could contribute to the creation of a government trusted by the Afghan people. Particularly after elections so blatantly rigged in favor of President Hamid Karzai that the much-criticized presidential vote in neighboring Iran a few months earlier looks like ballot stuffers' amateur hour in comparison.

Afghanistan ranks 176 (out of 180) on an international index on corruption compiled annually by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog based in Berlin. The bleak assessment the top military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, sent to Obama, referred to the dilemma that poses.

"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions by power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials ... have given Afghans little reason to support their government. This crisis of confidence has created fertile ground for the insurgency."

Catch-22 for the United States and its NATO allies if Afghanistan's state remains weak?

Ballots from the disputed August elections are still being counted but Washington seems resigned to the prospect of having to deal with Karzai for another five years. It requires the willing suspension of disbelief to assume the next Karzai-led government would be different enough from the actual one to end the "crisis of confidence."

"We ... must ask whether we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with suspicion," John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. The answer seems straightforward: probably not.

But after Obama declared Afghanistan a war of necessity and warned that losing it would put at risk "the safety of people around the world," how much leverage do the United States and its NATO brothers-in-arms have on the government in Kabul? Cut aid? Set a withdrawal deadline? Shame corrupt officials with public disclosures?

The strategy reappraisal debate began in earnest in the last week of September with a video conference bringing together senior White House officials and General McChrystal. There won't be a decision for weeks, according to the White House, and there may be more options than those that have been aired so far.

Apart from McChrystal's "more troops and a significant change in strategy" plan, there are influential voices arguing the opposite - draw down forces in Afghanistan (now more than 100,000, two thirds of them American) and instead strike harder at al Qaeda across the border in Pakistan with missile strikes and special forces.

For Obama, there are Catch-22 elements in whatever he decides. If he goes for boosting forces for what is becoming an unpopular war and there is no significant progress by the time he is beginning to campaign for re-election, his chances of a second term in 2012 will probably be slim.

If he cuts down the U.S. presence and there is an attack on the United States that his political foes can blame him for, they are equally slim. (You can contact the author at (Editing by Kieran Murray)