Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Just a quick post here. Busy. I was in China last week and am headed to Copenhagen next week. End of semester and about 50 papers to grade in between....

Afghanistan, sigh. Lots of criticism from all sides about Obama's chosen policy. The only support seems to be from the military itself.

On the right, there's hand-wringing concern about a timetable approach. If the US gives a clear timetable, then the bad guys will just wait it out, as Rove and others have said, and we'll see an explosion of violence once US troops start to leave. The alternative, I guess, is to never leave because then the Taliban can't wait out the US. The goal must then be to beat the population into submission through long occupation. That's brilliant. Is there some reasonable policy from the right that's hiding somewhere in all the overwrought noise or is it just all neocon-as-usual permanent war?

Pres. Obama, on the right's view, could summon happy fairy dust to rain on us all and he would still be wrong because we should actually get happy fairy nuggets. Plus, as I've seen many rightwing commentators say, this is all about Obama's reelection. Really? Universal public dissatisfaction with his choice and this is all about reelection? C'mon.

On the left, the withdrawal can't come soon enough. It's not Obama's war, it's a bottomless pit for human lives, a drain on the US public purse, and Afghanistan is a country that will never have any semblance of stability as we recognize it. Further, if following the original justification for the war - to defeat al Qaeda and its Taliban patrons - we can take some satisfaction in al Qaeda being reduced to a handful of nutjobs mostly operating in either Pakistan or relatively distant countries such as Yemen. So, why continue to pump resources into Afghanistan? The US should therefore just pull out, bring the troops home, and hope for the best, dreaming of a future of zero blowback. Also brilliant.

Pres. Obama, on the left's view, is just another George W. Bush, continuing a failed policy of violence for violence's sake but better concealing the policy through his silver-tongued sermons.

Honestly, we're all idiots. Cheryl is right - there's basically cause for little but ambivalence. There is no good choice in Afghanistan. We can say that Obama and the country were left with a failed policy and an absolute mess to clean up. That's true but just too easy to say. It is indeed completely unsatisfying to hear that "the alternatives are untenable," as say the senior administration officials Cheryl cites from the blogger conference call. But there had to be a decision. Do the critics have tenable alternatives?

I'm sure I must be oversimplifying here and possibly creating a false dilemma, but from what I've read and heard this is what the alternatives basically amount to: war without a clear end versus withdrawal come what may. Both options elevate the risk of perpetual violence of one kind or another and involve huge risks in the short and long terms that have simply not been comprehensively addressed in public discussion. A comprehensive assessment of risks has been conveniently ignored by all political sides in favor of their own partial assessments.

I'd be happy to be disabused of the notion that the other policies on offer boiled down to the above two. Does someone have a better Afghanistan policy? What is that policy? By which criteria is that policy better? Do those criteria take into account a comprehensive evaluation of the risks?

In terms of domestic politics, I think Obama has done something quite astonishing. While those around him are looking to what gets their boss past 2012, Obama himself has made a decision that was fated to be politically difficult. And he made it to the best of his ability, not according to a particular ideology. He has managed to piss off everyone. But there was never going to be a political out on Afghanistan. Obama was left with the political bill for something Bush and Cheney put down on a credit card we can't pay.

Further on the domestic political front, the left should be smarter politically and take on at least a wee bit of pragmatism. But I'm afraid that all I see are idiots, even among those whose views I generally hold in high regard.

Faced with a deadly but unavoidable choice that none of the rest of us armchair policymakers has had to make (or for which none of us has even come up with solid answers), Obama has done what he can and the policy follows the advice of those more in the direct line of fire. He has laid out the strategy that contextualizes military tactics.

Domestically, to leave the president in the lurch now is exceedingly dangerous because even if we were left with murky alternatives on many domestic and international policy issues, we know with reasonable precision what the alternative is in 2012. Tiny steps forward are better than a giant leap backwards off a cliff.


Marc Lynch via Sullivan:
But when things don't go their way, will they really follow through on their promises to draw down? Few people believe that. And if they don't believe it, then the mechanism of pressure doesn't operate. So it seems to me that the best way for skeptics such as myself to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise.


Andy said...

A really good and insightful post Helmut.

My own speculation on the President's intent is that he will try to strategically replicate Iraq since 2007. I think he realizes that withdrawal is not possible if the withdrawal is perceived as weakness and it certainly would be perceived that way while the Taliban appears to have the initiative in Afghanistan. So I think the additional troops are meant to regain the initiative so the US can draw-down from a position of perceived strength.

This is exactly what happened in Iraq in my estimation. The "surge" was a tactical victory that did not solve any of Iraq's underlying social and political problems, but the tactical success provided strategic space to put in a timetable for withdrawal - something that was problematic during 2007. The tactical success stymied any accusations from domestic political opposition or foreign enemies that the US withdrawal is the result of weakness, vacillation or "surrender."

I think the same thing is possible in Afghanistan and it seems, to me at least, to be a pretty good option considering the alternatives. Withdrawal now would carry a heavy political cost both domestically and abroad and a long-term "nation-building" enterprise in Afghanistan is an unsustainable fool's errand. The viable middle course is an orderly withdrawal from a position of perceived strength and I think that's what President Obama may be trying to do.

Of course this strategy is dependent on tactical success and a number of other factors which are far from certain. As you've noted, there are no option that carry little risk.

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