Hillary Clinton's Afghanistan Problem

December 17, 2013 Topic: Domestic PoliticsPolitics Region: AfghanistanUnited States Blog Brand: The Buzz

Hillary Clinton's Afghanistan Problem

The surge might have been Obama's biggest mistake abroad—and she pushed it to the hilt.

Over the past year, and in the past month in particular, there have been a number of pieces evaluating Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and contrasting her performance with that of her successor, John Kerry. (See, for example, Michael Hirsh in Foreign Affairs , David Rohde in the Atlantic and Susan Glasser at POLITICO Magazine .) There is a general consensus among these authors that goes roughly as follows: Clinton was a good, but not great, diplomat. She was a competent manager of the State Department, but took few risks and made little effort to solve major international problems. As Aaron David Miller, quoted in Glasser’s article, says, “She was a fine [secretary of state] but not consequential.” Conversely, Kerry has been much more of a risk-taker, throwing himself aggressively into efforts to negotiate a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, bring about a truce in the Syrian civil war, and resolve the dispute between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear activities.

There is a fair bit of truth to this portrait. But two points are worth adding to the discussion. First, some of the risks Kerry has taken have been largely the result of changes in the international environment. The best example of this is in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani was elected president to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Paul Pillar wrote shortly after Rouhani’s election, his victory brought “to Iran’s presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive.” Pillar also noted that the election result was “a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations.” This analysis was borne out by the process of negotiations that led to last month’s interim agreement . It’s hard to imagine that this deal could have been reached under Ahmadinejad or a successor with a similarly hard-line worldview. The fact that the two countries reached the deal says more about Iran than it does about any real differences between Clinton and Kerry.

Second, and more importantly, is that there is one major subject that gets short shrift in all of these assessments of Clinton: Afghanistan. Glasser only mentions the country once, in passing. Rohde and Hirsh both mention her support for the thirty-thousand-troop “surge” that President Obama ordered in his first year in office, but neither goes into much detail on the matter. None of them suggest that this decision ought to factor in significantly in our overall evaluation of Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

This is a real oversight. The 2009 decision to send thousands of additional troops and commit billions more dollars to Afghanistan was one of the most consequential foreign-policy decisions of President Obama’s first term in office. It also might have been his biggest foreign-policy mistake. The administration never had a plausible theory for how its eighteen-month surge would realistically lead to a meaningfully better long-term outcome for the country. The problems that plagued Afghanistan prior to the surge—among them an ineffectual government, endemic corruption, and safe havens across the border in Pakistan—were not ones that the United States had the means to remedy, short of engaging in a decades-long military occupation of the country. The result, as Stephen Walt wrote
 in 2012, is “that the extra effort isn’t going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted.” ="#sthash.huhxujow.dpbs">

Along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the uniformed military command, Clinton was one of the biggest supporters within the administration’s national-security team for escalating in Afghanistan. As Bob Woodward recounted in Obama’s Wars , as Obama conducted his Afghan review leading up to his decision, Clinton repeatedly and forcefully advocated for General Stanley McChrystal’s request for an additional forty thousand soldiers. She
said in one Situation Room meeting of McChrystal’s plan, “I wholeheartedly endorse the approach, and think it can make a difference.” ="#v=snippet&q=%22wholeheartedly%20endorse%22&f=false">


The Afghan war doesn’t get much attention these days, and the reasons why are fairly straightforward. The administration would like to remove its troops from the country as quickly as possible, but also wants to avoid a worst-case outcome such as the complete collapse of the Afghan state. Some hawkish Republicans continue to criticize Obama for “abandoning” Afghanistan, but given how little public support there is for the war, there’s not much political incentive for the GOP to make this a major line of attack.

But we shouldn’t forget the war, and we shouldn’t forget the surge. The escalation that President Obama ordered was one of the most important decisions of his five years in office, and it led to the greatest new commitment of lives and resources the United States has made overseas during that time. In the years since, the costs of this choice have been high and the gains have been minimal. As we assess Obama’s foreign-policy legacy as president and Clinton’s as secretary of state, this fact deserves to be front and center, not glossed over or ignored.