Obama as Gorbachev

President Obama might consider stealing from Mikhail Gorbachev's playbook on Afghanistan.

One cannot help but be struck by the comparisons that can be drawn between Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Barack Obama—at least when it comes to Afghanistan. Within a year or so of taking office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev had come to the realization that the Soviet Union needed to terminate its intervention in Afghanistan, end the mounting losses to Soviet blood and treasure, and abandon the hopes of the most radical of both the Afghan Communists as well as the most doctrinaire Soviet officials that Afghanistan could be recreated as a model "people's democracy."

Reading the excerpts from Bob Woodward's latest tome, Obama's Wars, one is repeatedly confronted with a president who, having inherited the conflict in Afghanistan, is looking for an exit strategy that will enable the United States to claim some degree of success, without bankrupting the U.S. economy or further straining the military. Afghanistan is likely to be the last of America's "big-ticket" nation-building enterprises. Given the need to "export security" (as Derek Reveron terms it) to so many parts of the globe where states are weak or face challenges that could be exploited by groups seeking to do us harm, we are likely to have a multiplicity of missions that resemble our decade-long engagement in Colombia.

The administration will launch a policy review of its options in Afghanistan this coming December, and already statements (such as those made by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) is that we should expect only some fine-tuning and tinkering with Afghan strategy, rather than a whole-scale revision. Moreover, franker talk from across the Atlantic—General David Petraeus's deputy in the International Security Assistance Force, UK Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, has said of the July 2011 deadline announced by the Obama administration, "It is entirely reasonable for there to be some draw down of some sort although I suggest it is not a significant as some people choose to make it out to be"—suggests that the mission is set to continue well into a possible second term for the president. The British do not envision leaving before 2015—and it is likely that U.S. involvement could continue past 2018. If Obama, however, decides to undertake a radical shift in the U.S. approach, then, given the ongoing difficulties he has had with the Hamid Karzai government, he will have to embrace the Najibullah option.

Gorbachev dumped the doctrinaire Communist Babrak Karmal in favor of Mohammad Najibullah, the head of the Afghan secret police (the KHAD). Najibullah began to dismantle many of the ideological features of the Communist state, tacitly accepting a much greater role for Islam, in an effort to head off the growth in support for the mujahideen. Most significantly, Gorbachev gave Najibullah the firepower and logistical support to consolidate his hold on power. Najibullah held on to his position after the departure of Soviet forces in early 1989, and might have lasted in power if, in the wake of the Soviet collapse of 1991, the supply chain from Moscow had not been terminated. There are, of course, some significant differences today. First and foremost, there is no clear "Najibullah" figure ready and waiting in the wings. Karzai, unlike Karmal, is unlikely to step aside quietly—and if U.S. pressure intensifies, might very well take up his threat to join up with the Taliban. Nor could a U.S. administration countenance the very brutal tactics utilized by Najibullah to take and hold on to power—certainly not with a current counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting the populace (rather than using brute force to overawe them).

So the Obama administration may not have an alternative exit strategy it desires—of being able to exit from Afghanistan, terminating direct U.S. involvement in the Afghan war, leaving behind a "friendly regime" and being able to show to the electorate in 2012 that there is "light at the end of the Afghan tunnel." And so it may be left with one of two politically unappealing choices: fully embrace an Afghan "surge" strategy that may need four years to fully play itself out-or decide to liquidate American involvement to end the hemorrhaging. Whether the president's national security and political teams can come to any consensus on this issue remains to be seen.