A few weeks ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele got kneecapped by Liz Cheney, William Kristol and Senator John McCain for having the temerity to suggests that Afghanistan was Obama’s war, but a growing number of congressional leaders, including Senator James Webb, are voicing apprehensions about the conflict. An ABC-News/Washington Post poll indicates that support for the war has plummeted among the American public to 43 percent. Now Newsweek is raising fresh doubts. In a cover story, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, announces that it’s time to recognize that America’s current approach isn’t working.
Is Haass’s missive a sign that the foreign-policy establishment, much as it did during Vietnam, is starting to crack up? Is Afghanistan no longer the “good” war, but a bad one? Not exactly.
The truth is that Haass’s essay promises a little more excitement than it delivers, which is why it ends up offering some sensible as opposed to outrageous suggestions. Haass, a realist who fit in well with the George H. W. Bush administration and not so well with the George W. Bush White House (he was director of the Policy Planning Staff), doesn’t seem to be calling for a unilateral withdrawal. Instead, he’s proposing that the mission be refashioned. No nation building. No trying to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Make sure that Pakistan remains stable and that al-Qaeda doesn’t resurrect its safe havens in Afghanistan.
According to Haass:
All this argues for reorienting U.S. Afghan policy toward decentralization—providing greater support for local leaders and establishing a new approach to the Taliban. The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better.
This, however, seems to be pretty much what the Obama administration is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. Thanks to American urging, Afghanistan and Pakistan have signed their first trade deal since the 1960s. This week’s international conference in Kabul featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is supposed to help speed the move toward Afghan self-reliance both economically and militarily. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday, special envoy Richard Holbrooke observed:
The Kabul conference is going to have several focuses, but the one I want to draw attention to is the reintegration program, which has finally been announced and . . . now the money has been assembled, a good chunk of money, and we all agree there’s no final military solution to this war. There has to be a way to get . . . fighters off the battlefield, and this is the route. If the reintegration program gets off the ground and if it’s successful, it will have a huge effect.
Haass suggests that Obama has been steadily upping the ante on Afghanistan. But has he? Obama himself has never gone on national television in a speech from the Oval Office to make the case for the war. Obama, in other words, has been careful not to pin himself down. Obama has left himself some political wiggle room by refusing to define what victory would actually look like in Afghanistan, or even to use the term. There’s no illusion of American omnipotence in Obama’s statements about the war.
It may also be premature to conclude that Obama’s surge in Afghanistan won’t work. The criticism leveled at George W. Bush for sending more troops to Iraq should induce some circumspection about dismissing out of hand the notion that Afghanistan can enjoy a modicum of stability. Indeed, Barry Gewen argues in the New Republic’s Entanglements blog that:
The major objective of the American intervention is not “winning” (whatever that means), but convincing the Taliban, militarily, politically and diplomatically, that it will never be able to conquer Afghanistan again. Doing that will take time, perhaps more time than Obama’s July 2011 deadline for the start of an American withdrawal allows for. There will be setbacks, conflicts, contradictions, and probably an ugly episode or two. Idealists should look away. But this kind of democracy promotion seems to me a reasonable goal to pursue, especially given the choices in Afghanistan—and as long as we approach the task with no illusions. After all, does anyone have a better idea?
No, they don’t.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.