On the Deadlines, the Media, and PMCs

by Reihan Salam

Ross has made compelling arguments against the president’s July 2011 timetable for winding down the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. I tend to agree with Sonny Bunch.

The supposed timeline that Obama has laid out is no such thing. He said that troops will “begin” to withdraw in 18 months if conditions allow. If you can’t see the wiggle room dripping off the teleprompter, then you’re a blind man.

If we on the right can’t get behind this plan, there’s nothing that Obama could have said last night that we could have gotten behind. Those of us who have been arguing that Afghanistan is NOT a lost cause — is NOT a backwoods we abandon to terrorists — have a duty to say “President Obama, we are with you on this.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t offer constructive criticism. The public conversation is presumably influencing the political calculations made by the White House.

Stray thoughts:

(1) A number of friends have noted that Afghanistan may prove less politically salient than many of us, myself included, have come to believe. As the major news organizations shrink, expensive bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad will likely suffer. And so it’s very possible that news from the front won’t have much impact. That isn’t true, of course, of rising U.S. casualties, which creates a strong incentive for an emphasis on force protection as opposed to counterinsurgency approaches that offer greater security to the civilian population while exposing U.S. forces to greater risk.

(2) The military itself engages in “Train and Equip,” essentially tactical efforts to improve the competence fo a foreign military force. But it doesn’t generally build up foreign security forces, i.e., create a cadre of NCOs, a working defense ministry, etc. The nuts and bolts of building foreign security forces is usually left to private military companies. And PMCs have raised hackles from the left, sometimes for good reasons. A surge strategy in Afghanistan will require a civilian surge, but it will also require a PMC surge. It’s not clear that we have an adequate regulatory framework for dealing with PMCs. One small thing to keep in mind, for skinflints like me, is that PMCs, like all contractors, are strongly inclined to, well, keep getting new contracts. We want them to do their jobs cheaply and quickly. They want to do their jobs expensively and over a long period of time. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it’s one we need to think about.

Now, we could say that the Pentagon should develop this capacity to build up foreign security forces on its own — this is a typical response from people who are allergic to the very idea of PMCs. This may or may not be a good idea, but we sure as heck can’t do it in the next 18 months, and that’s the timetable we’re dealing with.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.