Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the Afghanistan war. At the conflict's outset, it was Donald Rumsfeld's war, which showcased American military power and seemed to be a rapid mission accomplished. The strategy's early successes led directly to the Iraq War, where similar tactics were supposed to result in another glittering accomplishment. They didn't. But ironically enough, Afghanistan, not Iraq, is starting to look like the true morass.
And so the Afghan war is heating up-in Washington, DC. President Obama is being besieged with advice and warnings. At a bipartisan meeting on Tuesday at the White House with Congressional leaders, Obama seemed to indicate that he's punting on whether or not to send another forty thousand troops that General Stanley McChrystal is demanding as part of a broader counterinsurgency campaign in addition to the sixty thousand already based in Afghanistan.
Democrats see McChrystal as a new Westmoreland. They are losing faith in the conflict, warning of a new Vietnam. In Washington, an antiwar protest took place over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial page is warning of catastrophe should America retreat and Republicans are urging Obama to increase the number of troops in the region-"Time is not on our side," declared Senator John McCain to Obama. Writing on her Facebook page on Tuesday, foreign-policy expert Sarah Palin declared that it's no "time for cold feet, second thoughts, or indecision."
Actually, it is. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans are opposed to the war. Politically, Obama would be following a suicidal course if he simply upped the number of troops in Afghanistan. Sure, Republicans would initially support him. But others would eventually get cold feet if the move backfired by triggering more antagonism among the locals in Afghanistan. George Will, for example, has already called for curbing the Afghan effort, which has led to calls of betrayal from the neoconservatives. But the blunt fact is that the hawks such as McCain and Palin are wrong-and there is a reason that this duo lost the presidential election in 2008.
It'd also be politically unwise to dramatically increase the number of troops unless Obama was absolutely confident of success-an overwhelming victory that would secure Afghanistan by eliminating the threat posed by the Taliban. The likelihood of that is awfully slim. One problem is the Kabul government itself. To call the recent August presidential election a joke would probably be an insult to comedians everywhere. The egregious UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sacked the diligent Peter W. Galbraith for having the temerity to point out that the election was rife with fraud. The parallels with Vietnam, where America was basically propping up a corrupt, unpopular government and touting nation-building, seem overwhelming.
But not quite. There is no real outside backer of the Taliban. And the stakes are higher in Afghanistan than they ever were in Vietnam. Afghanistan has already served as the basis for a massive attack on America. Bruce Hoffmann is exactly right when he says that bailing out is, in essence, a strategy that Washington has previously pursued to its peril.
What Obama needs to do is think strategically about the conflict rather than rushing to pour more troops into the region. His obvious hesitation about acceding to McChrystal's request is a sign that he is, in fact, being strategic, weighing the risks before plunging further into this volatile region, where additional troops might simply inflame the local population. Remarkably, no one is talking about the British and German contribution to the war, which is quite shaky. Instead of focusing solely on the issue of American troops Obama would be wise to consult closely with the new German government about how to ensure further assistance. But even in Germany it's widely acknowledged among the political class that bailing out on Afghanistan is not an option. Even the pacifist Green Party is remaining mum about the war, having endorsed the resolution backing German involvement.
So far, Obama has got it right. America will have to muddle through but that doesn't mean the administration's policy is muddled. Continuing to negotiate a middle course between wobbly Democrats and bellicose neocons may pose the greatest challenge of his presidency. Even if some Democrats want to bail out of Afghanistan and some Republicans think success can be earned with crushing force, the sad fact is that there will likely be many more anniversaries of the Afghanistan war before America can extricate itself.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.