Even ‘Winning’ in Afghanistan Would Include Some Failures

Call it the Casablanca routine. Every few years, Bob Woodward releases one of his books and all of Washington is shocked, shocked, by its revelations. This time, it turns out that President Obama is reluctant to commit to an open-ended expansion of the war in Afghanistan; that Vice President Biden argued for a smaller, counterterrorism option; and that military leaders boxed in the president by offering him as the only feasible option their preferred course — a buildup of troops. Is any of this surprising to someone who has been reading newspapers for the past two years?

Critics of the president have seized on the book as proof that he is a weakling who doesn’t have the fortitude to wage war. He should learn from Lincoln, FDR or Churchill, they say, and do what it takes to win. No. Those leaders were engaged in massive wars that threatened their nation’s existence. Obama is prosecuting a complex military intervention aimed at weakening a terrorist organization. It requires less Churchill and more Eisenhower, a tough willingness to make strategic choices and impose limits on the use of American blood and treasure. The United States has spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is understandable, in fact commendable, that the president does not want to write another set of blank checks for the Afghan war.

Al-Qaeda is a nebulous organization, inspiring more than directing other small terrorist groups. It has a base in Afghanistan but according to CIA estimates is down to a few hundred followers there. (It is more active now in Pakistan, another complicating factor.) Weakening the group’s base is important, but plots will continue to emanate from al-Qaeda, other groups and lone terrorists no matter how successful the U.S. operation in Afghanistan. Countering terrorist groups around the globe and defending the United States against them is an ongoing business. The war in Afghanistan, in other words, is one part of the broader global counterterrorism strategy, which is itself just one part of a broader national security strategy. It cannot be waged without a sense of tradeoffs or limits.

Whenever we decide to scale back, Afghanistan is going to look messy. It is highly unlikely that we could ever achieve “total victory” in Afghanistan. We are battling the Taliban, a local force representing part of the Pashtun community. Pashtuns are almost half of Afghanistan’s populace. The Taliban will always be a part of Afghanistan’s political mix. Post columnist Charles Krauthammer complains that Obama calls Afghanistan a vital national interest yet refuses to do the kind of patient nation-building that is the very essence of counterinsurgency. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, has deeply entrenched ethnic rivalries and is reeling from civil war. Will institutions built by Washington in a year or two last? Have they lasted in Iraq? Our combat troops left Iraq in August after a successful surge, yet that country remains extremely violent. It is also a political mess, now to be ruled by a coalition that includes the most anti-American, pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. And that is seen by the president’s critics as a great success.

Obama has chosen a sensible middle course in Afghanistan, trying to devote significant time and resources to that country, degrading the Taliban but also letting the U.S. military know that this is not an unlimited engagement and that America has other interests in the world. The Marine Corps commandant says that the enemy now believes that it simply needs to outlast us. But that would be true whether the United States stayed for two years or 10. More important, the United States is not wholesale leaving Afghanistan. Obama will keep in place tens of thousands of American troops for an indefinite period, one that could stretch over decades. What he won’t do is keep 100,000 troops in combat forever.

In a smart new book, “How Wars End,” Gideon Rose, the incoming editor of Foreign Affairs, points out that Americans are chronically disappointed by the way their wars end. Even as World War II came to a close, there was the deep sense of betrayal over Yalta. This is because while waging wars, Americans refuse to think through the political and military tradeoffs needed to get to a reasonable outcome. In Korea we continued to fight for one-and-a-half bloody years over an obscure prisoner-of-war exchange that few remember today. At this point, to get a decent outcome in Afghanistan, it’s less important that the president’s heart be in the fight than his head be in the strategy.

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