Barack Obama, if all reports are accurate, is on the verge of making a tremendous mistake, and risks showing a lack of leadership. The media reports suggest that he is neither going to increase troop strength in Afghanistan as Gen. McChrystal requests, nor is he going to radically redefine the mission as simply going after al qaeda and thereby leaving Afghanistan primarily to the Afghans. Instead, it appears he’s opting for the status quo, which would be the worst of all worlds. I hope these media reports are wrong.
To be sure, I’m not among those who are too critical of Obama so far. He’s had to deal with major crises as the US in very poor shape both internally and abroad. He’s been mercilessly attacked from the Right, which wants to personally destroy him and his Presidency, and sharply criticized from the Left, who wants him to move more aggressively to implement a liberal agenda. The President has been methodical and true to his claim to be someone who tries to build consensus and bring people together. And despite a slow pace, he seems to be making progress on his agenda.
One risk a new President faces in foreign policy is to approach it like a domestic issue — listen to various advisers, and then put together some kind of compromise nearly everyone can live with. Perhaps that can work with health care, but in foreign policy the middle ground is often the road to nowhere.
Yes, listen to the various advisers and experts, but ultimately the President has to choose the path most likely to succeed, using his best judgment, even if it means disagreeing with his cabinet members, the General in the field, or people in his own party. In the case of Afghanistan I believe he has to risk angering the foreign party establishment in Washington and suffering an angry backlash from the Right. He should decide to end the effort to democratize and stabilize Afghanistan. Instead, he should either pull out the troops completely, or redefine their role as a narrow focus on al qaeda, shifting away from counter insurgency towards having the military integrated into a larger scope counter terrorism policy. That larger policy should not be primarily a military policy, but one with many dimensions.
The reason is simple: trying to bring stability and security to Afghanistan is mission impossible. Especially in a time of economic decline and with a military overstretched and exhausted, the conflict risks being a sinkhole sucking in the lives of American soldiers with no chance to some kind of successful conclusion or victory.
I know the counter arguments. Afghanistan was relatively stable until the early seventies, and many people believe that if we only had spent more time and money there in the early nineties, the rise of the Taliban (which was created and put in place by the Pakistani ISI) might have been avoided. Now we need to avoid repeating the mistake, lest Afghanistan again become a haven for terrorism and a threat to US security.
There are two problems with that argument. First, it’s not an argument for continuing at current troop levels in a mission that so far is failing miserably. If one is really convinced that either out of moral responsibility or concern for our security we need to do all we can to stabilize Afghanistan, then it must become a national priority with a massively increased US presence and involvement.
However, I believe that would be a mistake. Afghanistan, as all know, has a reputation as being the killer of empires. Given the growing weakness of the US on the world stage, we need to be vary leery of being sucked into a conflict that will continue to erode our political, military, and economic strength. Ask the Soviets, the British, Alexander the Great, the Persians, and Genghis Khan! Yet foreign policy isn’t made based on historical slogans either. This is the 21st century, and the realities are much different now than in the past.
The problem is that military power has never been able to shape and mold political cultures. That was the failure in Vietnam, that’s the continuing failure in Iraq, and that’s why Afghanistan went from seeming to be an overwhelming victory in 2001 to becoming viewed as a massive failure in 2009. That inability to create democracy and stability without a political culture able to support it is standard fare in Political Science courses. It comes up against the myth that Americans have that democracy is natural and easy to make work if only the authoritarians would let it. Democracy is hard to implement and maintain, and it requires a culture tolerating opposition, governed by rule of law, with accountability of the government to the people, and in general an acceptance of compromise and cooperation between different groups. Most countries that try democracy have it fail a number of times before it sticks. In the US it was built very slowly, with slavery for 80 years, and women being denied the vote for 140 years. A radical shift to stable democracy is impossible for most states, especially those with fragmented political cultures full of corruption like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before the war, hawks liked to point to Germany and Japan after WWII as proof democracy can be imposed. But each country had strong democratic movements, each had tried democracy before, each was an advanced industrial state with a well educated population, and each had a strong sense of tradition and national unity. Most importantly, each had a large middle class that wanted economic success and was willing to work with the US and others. Those two countries were unique, and certainly not models for states like Iraq and Afghanistan.
If President Obama does not take bold action to dramatically alter the mission in Afghanistan, cut down the number of troops there, and redefine the military’s role as being to support counter-terrorist operations focused on Al Qaeda, not only will the US not be able to achieve its goals, but Obama’s very Presidency could be at risk. The advice from Washington foreign policy insiders is often like the advice from financial market analysts before 2008: wishful thinking based on assumptions from the past in a world fundamentally altered. The idea that somehow the US can “fix” Afghanistan is a fatally flawed idea. President Obama should not flinch from having to end that operation and take whatever heat he gets.