The Obama administration came into office promising to use “all the elements of national power” (or, in the bumper-sticker version, “smart power”). Why use military force—unilaterally—if diplomacy and economic power and multilateral action can do the trick?
The campaign in Afghanistan, already a multilateral action for the record books, is now framing that question in stark and concrete terms. One reason the Obama administration may have been caught so flat-footed by the troop request from General McChrystal is that the multilateralism of our approach to the Afghan problem has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. Afghanistan has been both NATO-ized and Asianized: it is the major preoccupation of the NATO alliance today, representing the largest overseas deployment of almost every NATO contributor; but it is also the main overseas military commitment of Japan (now under reconsideration), as well as a regional issue with its own standing working group under the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO, in fact, held a summit conference devoted to Afghanistan in March, attended by U.S. and other NATO representatives, and has treated Afghanistan as one of its main issues at each conference in the last five years. (See a good summary of the SCO and Afghanistan here.)
For at least two of those years, as any online search will reveal, pundits and politicians have been making the case that more cooperation between NATO and Russia is the key in Afghanistan. Russia is now embedded in the humanitarian effort there, and has assumed a de facto patronage of Hamid Karzai’s government. India has become a major commercial investor in Afghanistan, although China is holding back because of the ongoing danger. Pakistan has roused itself to a significant effort against the Taliban in its northwest territories. Even Iran has been welcomed to the fold of multilateral diplomacy on Afghan issues.
America’s top officials in Afghanistan, fully aware of all these dynamics, assembled and forwarded a plan to implement President Obama’s new strategy—one that incorporates and relies on these multilateral, diplomatic, and economic factors. In the process they determined that if we are to “defeat, dismantle, and disrupt Al Qaeda,” it is essential to deny the Taliban territory by immunizing the population against the Taliban’s guerrilla tactics. But the means to do that cannot be found in cooperation with Russia, commercial investment by India, or the discussion points of SCO working groups. The means for immunizing the Afghan population against the Taliban is boots on the ground.
If Albert Brooks scripted a send-up of self-important “smart power” multilateralism, it would look like the effort in Afghanistan. And in Brooks’s hands, of course, the inevitable comeuppance would be handled with painful honesty. All the multilateralism in Afghanistan—a pragmatic holding strategy for Bush, an ideological sine qua non for Obama—cannot achieve what a unified, military-centered offensive can. If Obama’s objective remains defeating, dismantling, and disrupting Al Qaeda, he will choose the military-centered option or he will not achieve it.
Our European NATO allies remain unwilling to make more than token additions to their troop strength in Afghanistan. The SCO nations have consistently declined to make military contributions in Afghanistan. If there is to be a military-centered initiative to drive back the Taliban, it will have to undertaken by the U.S. In this most multilateral of operations, the way ahead comes down, as it has since 1945, to an American decision.