Betting everything on Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
November 18, 2009, 12:37 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan

Matthew Yglesias picks up Spencer Ackerman’s note that a deployment of 30-40,000 more troops to Afghanistan would, in fact, mean deploying pretty much every available brigade we’ve got there. Yglesias then notes as a cute aside that “I don’t really think we need to worry too much about the possible lack of a contingency force to fight off an invasion from Mexico.”

I disagree! Not about an invasion from Mexico, that is; but the problem is precisely that we’re in Afghanistan because we no longer think of the military as something one employs when somebody invades the US, or even an American ally. Instead, we’re thinking of the military as something we send to failed states and zones of insurgency because they could, potentially, harbor anti-American terrorists. And that means the list of potential sites for intervention is pretty much open-ended. Heck, we could even intervene in northern Mexico, where there’s a shooting war between drug-financed criminal gangs and (probably drug-financed criminal) police and possibly murderous Mexican Federal troops that could almost as easily be described as an “insurgency” as what’s going on in Afghanistan today.

If there’s a reason why we don’t need to “worry” about such contingencies, it would be that Afghanistan today is a war of choice, which is occupying the entire energies of our military mainly because our military (particularly its ascendant counterinsurgency faction) needs a war to occupy its energies. There are people who are arguing that the main argument for allowing the military to continue what it’s on about in Afghanistan is that as long as it’s tied up there, they can’t be causing too much trouble elsewhere, particularly in Washington. Increasingly, that looks like a plausible argument to me.


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Aircraft (and UAVs) are our tools of choice for responding to international crises. Carrier battlegroups, too, even if they are slower.

But don’t underestimate the importance of keeping enough deployable ground troops on hand. Dispatching a brigade to South Korea sends a much stronger message than flying in a squadron of F-16s. I remember reading Barry Blechman’s Force Without War in college, which examined how the U.S. military was used as a political instrument during the Cold War. I’m pretty sure he found that sending ground troops had longer-lasting effect.

Comment by Michael Peck

Interesting. Here in SE Asia, ship visits appear to play a major diplomatic role in defense relationships that aren’t at the “alliance” level, because they demonstrate friendliness without implying a commitment on either side. But there do seem to be implications involved in the size of the ship and its military vs. support type. Vietnam has been getting steadily larger and more firepower-oriented ships visiting over the past few years; most recently it got two ships at once, a guided missile cruiser and a destroyer, if I’m not mistaken. (I think one was an Arleigh Burke-class?) Meanwhile, Hong Kong was slated to get a port call by an aircraft carrier this spring but had it called off after the US-China tense maneuvers in the S China Sea. I would imagine a Vietnam visit by an aircraft carrier would be seen as too provocative towards China by the Vietnamese, not to mention that I’m not sure there’s a port in Vietnam that could easily handle one.

All of which is interesting…but there’s something kind of odd about devoting too much attention to the potential diplomatic value of defense assets. They’re pretty expensive things to use as tokens . Though then again, that’s also the whole logic of deterrence. So maybe that’s a flawed objection. We’re supposed to have defense assets as scary objects to wave in the faces of potential threats, so I guess one does want to devote a lot of thinking towards effective scary-object-waving strategies.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Good point about the importance of naval visits in SE Asia, Matt. Unless it’s some cultural affinity between Asians and ships, or an enduring legacy of colonialism and the Seventh Fleet, I assume this is because SE Asian nations tend to be maritime powers, and visiting warships indicate an ability to project naval power.

But those are show-the-flag visits. I think Yglesias was debating whether we need spare Army brigades for military purposes. At least for signaling concrete military commitment, ground troops are best. Because you can’t remove them from harm’s way quickly like you can ships and especially planes, any potential aggressor – like North Korea – will take them more seriously.

But perhaps that’s a Western view. You raise a good question. How would an emerging Asian great power like China choose to signal military commitment?

Comment by Michael Peck

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