Paul Pillar

Role-Playing and Afghanistan

Another “review” by the administration of policy toward Afghanistan is an occasion for reviewing the different roles played by Americans who have something to say about the Afghan war.

The president has to play the role of the commander in chief of a military expedition that is accomplishing something. Americans expect that from their presidents in time of war. We know that Mr. Obama has serious reservations about the size and duration of the commitment that the United States has undertaken in Afghanistan, but he must put up a brave and confident face because of that public expectation and for other reasons. One of those reasons is his own political baggage, which includes his admirable opposition from the beginning to the ill-advised war in Iraq, leaving the war in Afghanistan as the contrasting “good” war through which he is expected to demonstrate his fortitude on matters of national security. His current political status does not lead him to diverge from these expectations. Democrats can cause him some grief over the issue, but Republicans could cause him even more if he were to change course. Besides, where else would Democrats go in 2012?

The U.S. military is playing its professional and constitutional role of performing the mission assigned to it, which it currently understands to be the stabilization of Afghanistan, or as much of Afghanistan as possible. The military does not evaluate whether the mission is worth the costs sustained in pursuing it; such evaluation is not part of its role. The field commander, General David Petraeus, and those advising him are expert enough in counterinsurgency to realize that the facts and the numbers in Afghanistan simply do not add up to an ability to stabilize Afghanistan. But the general, like the president, must play the role of the confident commander in whom the American people can also be confident. This role is all the greater for Petraeus because of the popular image of him as a miracle worker who turned things around in Iraq, even though politically things never really did turn around in Iraq and the reduction in violence there was also due to other factors besides the surge and the commander's ingenuity. So Petraeus and his command emphasize in Afghanistan concentrated operations in selected parts of the country that can show some success, and emphasize in Washington the positive side of the results of those operations.

Analysts elsewhere in the government and especially in the intelligence community have the professional role of calling things as they see them in Afghanistan while scrupulously avoiding anything that would constitute criticism of current policy. The job of the analysts is not just, as some journalists have suggested, to warn of potential bad news. Indeed, their job is more comfortable when they can talk about good news. Apparent differences in their outlook from those of the military also are not due, as some in the military have suggested, to intelligence assessments being the work of desk-bound analysts who lack a sense of what is going on in the ground in Afghanistan. To the contrary, their assessments reflect the thinking of multiple agencies and the totality of the evidence, including not least the reporting of the military itself. The assessments reflect a broader and more complete perspective than the outlook of military leaders who are properly focused on working hard to accomplish a specific mission. The differences in assessments reflect that difference in breadth and the absence from the analysts' role of any need to put on a brave face for public consumption. More specifically in the current instance, the difference is between the military's emphasizing of what has been accomplished where military efforts have been concentrated in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and the intelligence community's broader awareness of negative trends in other parts of the Afghanistan. It also reflects the military's natural tendency to de-emphasize the negative side of what is occurring even in Helmand and Kandahar, such as an increase in favorable popular sentiment toward the Taliban.

Independent analysts and specialists outside government have the same role of calling things as they see them, but with none of the government analysts' restrictions about openly criticizing current policy. The most recent significant statement of outside analysts is an open letter signed by some fifty specialists who have studied Afghanistan. The letter describes how trends in Afghanistan are unfavorable, a military solution there is not feasible, and negotiations with the Taliban are necessary. The statement amplifies earlier outside assessments such as the one released by the Afghanistan Study Group three months ago.

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