Salvaging Afghanistan

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.)

Military views, of course, count for a lot. Indeed, they appear now to be decisive with the president, no matter how hard he pushes them, and they color the politics of the issue. The national-security apparatus is no easy foe. Quite understandably, most senior military officials want combat forces to remain in Afghanistan until the task of building a working Afghan state has significantly advanced. They will be finding every reason for staying. They won much respect with the surge in Iraq, although there are other ways of explaining the improvement there than the surge. Nor does that success mean that the surge in Afghanistan led by the same military men in Iraq will work. The sad fact is that we don’t know what it will take, how long it will take, and what it will cost “to win” in Afghanistan, no matter what our government or military say. That the promised end of the year will bring a conclusive judgment of our prospects is illusory. The Taliban can always decide to fight another day in places and times of their choosing.

There are obviously downsides to ending our ground combat role in Afghanistan and they will be heard incessantly—they range from the immeasurable, like the loss of wider credibility, and the concrete in its impact on many Afghans. The certainty of success is also not measurable and rarely set forth. It is not surprising that governments opt for waiting for something to turn up.

In the end, one has to make some assessment about our prospects in Afghanistan. Judgments will wildly differ. The basic issues for decision, are how long our ground forces stay and what they can accomplish. The longer we stay, the more likely we will stay longer in the hopes that something good will happen. The administration thus also avoids a fight with the Right, whose hold on the public discourse cannot be believed given their record this past decade. Nor will the American public necessarily tune out on Afghanistan, although polls show them increasingly uncertain about what the administration is doing. Colin Powell was clearly wrong in asserting that the American public could not fight a long war and needed an exit strategy for any future wars. The United States has now fought two bloody wars for over five years with monumental damage to the U.S. economy. And the fighting may well continue with public support or acquiescence.

Or the administration could make the judgment that almost nine years is enough given the uncertainties of success; that the human and material costs are too great; that we simply do not know how to save Afghanistan without a commitment of forces and treasure for many years; that our preoccupations with Afghanistan cannot likely be politically sustained without significant results in the ground; and that we should end our ground force presence sooner rather than later—by the end of 2011. Sooner rather than later ensures there will be no “just give us a little more time” policy.

The last few years have made it clear that, whatever useful achievements we have made, one cannot have confidence that the United States knows what it is doing and can do in Afghanistan, and that success will probably take years. The civil war within the administration does not inspire confidence.

The United States does not have an Afghan government that is effective. As such, the Afghan situation is indeed very reminiscent of our Vietnam problem. On the other hand, the Taliban are not North Vietnam. There is no reason to believe Afghan leaders will commit suicide and that Afghanistan cannot remain a divided but a functioning state with our provision of equipment, training, air support and economic assistance—and possibly an American-brokered peace settlement. After all, Kabul has enormous manpower and material advantages. Nor by all accounts is al-Qaeda the factor it once was in Afghanistan. Nor does this approach preclude a continuing effort on our part to keep after it.

Even so, the Taliban have one major advantage: they are not aliens in a strange land. Whatever our concern for the Afghan people and their lack of affection for the Taliban, the Taliban have the nationalist card and are fighting outsiders, as they have done in the recent past. Moreover, without much training and far less outside help they are able to survive the much larger and far better equipped Afghan and American forces. They also have the choice and capability of running away and fighting another day.