For all the talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics, what’s remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic economics and military affairs.
Economically, Obama has continued the bailout of Wall Street, maintained Bush-era tax cuts, pursued “stimulus” through large deficit spending and re-appointed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who was a Bush favorite.
In defense, Obama has broken with Bush on a few critical matters, notably by canceling expensive weapons systems and dropping (in September) an aggressive plan to impose a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe that Russia intensely opposed. Yet Obama has carried over Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates; essentially stuck with Bush timetables on Iraq; and maintained historically record levels of Pentagon spending. The president has continued the war in Afghanistan, raising the number of American combat troops. In a speech on August 17, Obama even tried to construct a moral basis for the war, described it as “not a war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.” And as a necessary war, “a war worth fighting,” Obama has declared that only through the democratization of Afghanistan can the terrorist threat to the United States – in the form of al Qaeda – be eliminated from the country.
Further escalation of the war in Afghanistan is no sure thing, however. Having voiced support for increasing combat troops earlier in his presidency, in September Obama seemed torn between three possibilities: escalation, muddling through with the current military footprint or shifting to a greatly “limited” combat mission that would concentrate on countering terrorists targeting the United States, rather than fighting the insurgent Taliban.
Obama’s decision is complicated by his earlier decision to ask his top Afghan military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to make the case for escalation. McChrystal is reportedly prepared to ask for an additional 40,000 U.S. troops – beyond the 68,000 American soldiers already approved to fight in Afghanistan.
While the question of whether or not the United States sends more troops to Afghanistan defines the current debate over the war, respected Democratic voices, such as Sen. John Kerry (D‑Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Vice President Joseph Biden, are quietly stumping for a third way: limited war in Afghan, which would concentrate on countering terrorists and depend on a relatively small number of conventional combat troops. The “limited” advocates, who Obama seemingly ignored until recently, are offering the president a stark choice between escalating – and creating a new Vietnam-style quagmire – and a sharp reduction of ground troops, which would likely reduce both American deaths and the cost of the war. Supporters of this approach include conservative columnist George Will, who in a September column nicely summarized the “limited” war approach. “Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy,” Will wrote. “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
A third way
That escalation in Afghanistan is no longer viewed as inevitable is welcome. Yet missing from the debate is any serious consideration of complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. No single voice in the foreign policy establishment supports the speedy exit of combat forces, though even McChrystal concedes that the United States might soon experience involuntary withdrawal – in total defeat. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he wrote in his confidential assessment of the war, leaked to the Washington Post.
To be sure, the United States has already lost the war in meaningful ways. The month of October marks eight years of U.S. combat in Afghanistan. More than 800 American soldiers have died – and alarmingly more than one quarter of that total died in the past three months alone. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the war began. The Afghan government this summer presided over a fraudulent national election. Illegal opium production has exploded since 2001; for 2008, the United Nations valued Afghan drug exports at $3 billion. Polls show less than 40 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, the lowest level of support since the start of the war.
Calling for complete withdrawal, phased or immediate, remains a lonely position, endorsed by such independent foreign policy experts as Andrew J. Bacevich, of Boston University, and Robert Naiman, coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, an activist group. Democratic Party leaders, while fretting over parallels between an Afghan quagmire and the Vietnam War that doomed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the ’60s, are objecting to escalation. Sen. Carl Levin’s (D‑Mich.) opposition to sending more troops, while trying to put limits on U.S. costs in the war, still holds fast to the notion that Afghan institutions, including the army, can be sufficiently strengthened to hold off the Taliban. Even many progressive advocacy groups, such as MoveOn, haven’t made rapid withdrawal form Afghanistan a high priority, perhaps fearing that by breaking with the president on war, they will weaken his ability to push through progressive domestic legislation like healthcare reform. But Code Pink, an influential peace group, has been calling on the president to “focus on negotiations and bringing our troops home.”
Getting the mission right
Yet the case for withdrawing from Afghanistan makes tactical, strategic and moral sense, chiefly because legitimate U.S. security needs can be achieved more effectively through other means. As Bacevich has written, “In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong mission.”
If there is a “right” mission in Afghanistan, it can only be to deny al-Qaeda and its friends the opportunity to attack Americans at home and abroad. After eight years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops (aided by much smaller forces from Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and other “allied” countries) haven’t accomplished this. Yet targeted attacks by U.S. and allied forces are killing terrorists, highlighting an alternative to ground troops and an Afghan quagmire.
In September, U.S. military forces in Somalia killed Saleh Nabhan, the man believed to be responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. Predator drones, “robot” aircraft controlled from a distance by U.S. technicians, have killed al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
The use of assassination squads and remote-controlled killer planes present their own practical and moral problems. The wrong people can be killed, for instance. And such attacks require detailed knowledge of the movements of the targets. Some of the declared “enemies,” meanwhile, such as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban government shattered by U.S. air strikes beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, might be worth negotiating with instead of killing. Omar remains head of the insurgency, a popular hero and important to any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. troops would be linked to progress in peace negotiation – and an acceptance that the Taliban, in some form, will play some role, if not a decisive role, in a new Afghan government.
An end to war in Afghanistan – and increased stability as a consequence of peaceful co-existence with the Taliban – would benefit Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be living in a remote city. Secular political forces in Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, are battling to keep the country out of the hands of religious fundamentalists who already exert profound influence. Anti-American feeling is extraordinarily high in Pakistan; even secular elites blame Americans for inflaming and exaggerating their domestic problems. The U.S. government, which is currently debating how much to increase financial assistance to Pakistan, would provide more effective help without troops in Afghanistan.
A comprehensive strategy
Defenders of escalation say that Afghanistan needs to be reformed and that the aim of U.S. intervention is to create a democratic society, where Afghanis are safe and free. The premise of a democratic Afghanistan informs McChrystal’s view of war aims; the commander’s edifice of escalation depends, he writes (weirdly echoing Hegel), on identifying “the objective will of the [Afghan] people.” In March, Obama gave powerful expression to this position when he announced his “comprehensive” strategy for Afghanistan. While his highest goal was to stop the use of the country as a terrorist staging ground, his next two were classic nation-building goals: to promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan and a national army that can ultimately take over “counter-insurgency” efforts from Americans.
In the arena of democratization, the American effort was marred by last month’s flawed elections, which saw President Hamid Karzai steal enough votes to claim victory (there’s a recount now underway). The election fiasco pushed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D‑Calif.), an influential Democrat, to predict Afghanistan “will remain [a] tribal entity.” Such a place would require a strong U.S. military presence to hold together and (perhaps) the emergence of a homegrown dictator ruling the country with a “strong hand.”
Yet the very presence of American troops inflames ethnic differences.
Afghans view Americans as invaders and occupiers, and their very presence galvanizes opponents, creating more resistance. As Afghan army spokesman Zahir Azimi has said, “Where [American] forces are fighting, people think it is incumbent on them to resist the occupiers and infidels.” The self-perpetuating nature of the conflict explains the profound pessimism expressed by some with deep experience in the region. British Gen. David Richards, who served in Afghanistan, said in August that stabilizing the country could take 40 years. While such predictions are dismissed as hysterical, they are simply the logical extension of Levin’s insistence that the United States “increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation.” These efforts at self-reliance inevitably involve a significant American presence on the ground, which in turn fuels the very cycle that Levin insists he wants to avoid: a costly quagmire.
The alternative to a McChrystal escalation or a Levin quagmire requires no leap into the unknown but rather recognition of limits of American power and the legacy of Afghan history. The script for withdrawal is essentially already written – in Iraq, of all places. For the sake of temporary peace, Iraq has essentially been partitioned into three “sub-countries,” two of which are essentially ethnic enclaves. The same could be done in Afghanistan – though the number of sub-divisions could be larger, and acceptance of Taliban rule over some of them would be required. In this scenario, a phased pullout of U.S. forces could accompany the negotiated “government of national unity,” which – like in Iraq – would preserve the “notional” nation of Afghanistan while effectively deconstructing the territory into more manageable pieces.
The United States once blithely dealt with the Taliban (Dick Cheney, after all, famously met with the Taliban prior to bin Laden’s attacks). While retaining the right to attack al Qaeda on Afghan soil, the Obama administration could tolerate Taliban rule if the result of a stable Afghanistan was to free more resources and attention to Pakistan’s urgent security issues. The embrace of realism could well co-evolve with the re-emergence of a moral center to American foreign policy.
Under this scenario, withdrawal of American troops would not mean the end of military actions on Afghan soil. As advocates of “limited” war argue, attacks could still be made from Predator drones based elsewhere. But air strikes and attacks by U.S. “special forces” on Afghan soil risk undermining any government of national unity and the pretense that the United States has halted its war on the Taliban.
For President Obama, the stakes are high. His young presidency is on the line. Perhaps because his secretary of defense, Gates, is a Republican, Obama has personalized the decision on Afghan strategy to a dangerous degree. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. By deciding to reduce, if not altogether remove, U.S. combat troops from the country, the president will take a step towards the moral high ground that he so often desperately seeks to inhabit.
Morality must return to the center of America’s relations with the world. Afghanistan could become, as Obama likes to say, “a teaching moment,” for this president and his wider constituency, the citizens of the planet. The Bush presidency damaged both the image of the United States as a role model for promoters of democratization around the world, and further entrenched a darker counter-view of America as a reactionary force in world affairs. The Obama presidency creates an opening to restore the brighter side. In continuing the war in Afghanistan, Obama risks destroying his chances to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world. By ending the Afghan war, quickly and decisively, the president will match his rhetoric of hope with reality. He will also save U.S. lives and create new openings for negotiation, diplomacy and regional solutions to problems in distant lands.