Salvaging Afghanistan

Obama needs to figure out definite approach, explain it seriously and stick to it.

The charge of hand-wringing is again heard in the land, mostly from our friends on the Right. Have any doubt about our war in Afghanistan after close to nine years and you are hand-wringing. Eighteen months into the new administration, two strategic reviews, and fifty thousand more troops later—and still, expressing doubt qualifies you for a top hand-wringing citation.

The sad fact is that there has not been enough hand-wringing over Afghanistan, except by General McCrystal, a sore winner who at least up till now pretty well got what he asked for. The upcoming administration review, supposedly due out in December, offers Obama—with two years to go till the election—the last chance of cutting through the fog of Afghan discourse to decide conclusively whether he gets out or gets in deeper.

The administration’s first AfPak review was totally inadequate. It failed to deal with the basic question of our greater involvement in the region and never told the public the truth about its potential costs. Al-Qaeda is bad, an existential danger: that was enough rationale for more troops. The mainstream media, with a few exceptions, also failed the country in not subjecting administration policy to persistent scrutiny. Our top journalists followed the new crowd around South Asia and declared that salvation was at hand.

The Taliban, unfortunately, never were as insightful as our media and regrettably were not awed by our determination and additional resources. They expanded their operations. Despite their lack of training, uniforms and advanced weaponry, they somehow made the country less secure as more Western troops poured in and as we trained several hundred thousand Afghans to meet our standards. To add to our security, the administration insisted on carrying out a national election that everyone knew would be phony; we then turned around to beat on President Kharzai until we had second thoughts and declared him a wartime Winston Churchill.

Our second Afghan review passed again with little examination: thirty thousand more troops even as a date was set to begin withdrawal in August 2011, which created heartburn among the determined, who saw it as an inducement to the Taliban to wait us out and a blow against Afghan confidence. Mr. Obama apparently also saw it as a warning to our military to make things happen on the ground, to Karzai that our patience was not inexhaustible and his government had to get its act in line, and to the American public that our military involvement would not be indefinite. But a surge for a little while and then a scale-back is a formula for tensions with the military. In any event, does anyone really believe that the August date will answer anything about the war without brutal internal honesty? From the start the administration has spoken with many tongues on this question.

After sixteen years of mostly war in Afghanistan, the notion that the Taliban might give up or negotiate surrender because of our determination to stay indefinitely cannot be taken seriously. But counterinsurgency—always there and supported by McChrystal, but never fully publicly blessed because of fears it would be construed as massive nation building—became the law of the land with little fuss. Our top TV networks breathlessly followed the Marja exercise, the first manifestation of the new strategy, declaring that it was a turning point in the war. Unfortunately, it was not. As for the Kandahar attack so announced with fanfare many months ago, it has been delayed and what it involves appears a little uncertain. Now it seems negotiations with the Taliban and Pakistani cooperation with the Afghan government are going to be our main exit ticket.

So where are we? That is hardly clear. The basic questions keep floating around but with no real answer for the public: what can we accomplish, how long will it take and what will it cost? Alternatively, what would be the costs of a quick end of our ground combat role and how could it be managed?

To be sure, answering these questions is not as easy as it sounds. In considering what we do in Afghanistan, we have to factor in not only a much diminished al-Qaeda as the administration claims, but also the instability in Pakistan, the limitations and durability of the Afghan government, the Taliban’s prospects, the dangerous emergence of full-fledged rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, and the like. Much also depends on when we leave and what we leave behind. It is no wonder that given the difficulties of sorting out these uncertainties one can easily fall back on “staying the course,” or looking for a negotiated solution with the Taliban. Finding a different approach is too hard and almost certainly politically costly for the administration. (Ironically, during the campaign, Mr. Obama cast the more winnable war in Iraq as the bad war, so to speak, and the likely unwinnable Afghan war the good one, to show he was tough on national security.)