Afghanistan is widely known for it’s beautiful long haired dogs, called Afghan hounds. Right now, however, it is Obama being hounded by his decision on Afghanistan. The right calls the 2011 deadline a ‘sign of weakness’ and something that ‘our enemies’ will use as motivation to hang on longer. The left sees sending more troops to try to stabilize the situation as misguided and pointless. To them Obama is weak in that he didn’t have the courage to end the mission. Both left and right accuse him of playing politics with the war. Others, such as Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight see it as political quicksand. If he breaks his promise to leave he’ll be hurt bad; if he keeps his promise he likely won’t benefit. Only a few loyalists don’t attack the policy from either the left or the right.
So what about the criticism? The criticism from the right strikes me as unrealistic at best, disingenuous at worst. It is unrealistic to expect the US to simply increase the scope of the war and continue indefinitely with a goal of defeating the Taliban completely. We can’t afford that, we wouldn’t get NATO support for such an effort (we will get modest support for this plan), and it sets the US up for a humiliating defeat down the line. I’m convinced that many on the right mistake rhetorical bravado for the realm of the possible. Anyone can talk big about victory and ‘defeating the enemy,’ but talk is cheap. Others like former Vice President Cheney, whose administration botched two wars and played a major role in driving the American economy into the abyss, have no business offering self-righteous criticism.
First off, Obama’s willingness to make a decision that he knew would satisfy no one is something I respect. He is President, he needs to focus on the policy, not the reaction. Those who charge him with playing small “p” politics are quite frankly dead wrong. He and his staff certainly knew this would be the reaction, both left and right have been telegraphing their positions for a long time. This was a politically risky choice, and Obama knows it.
A couple days ago, using a fictional conversation with Obama, I explained my take on the logic of the decision. The US needs to get out, but getting out the wrong way could make matters much worse. Getting out the right way requires the US try to pressure Karzai to make internal changes, convince Pakistan that the US takes the fight against terrorism seriously, and create an opportunity for the Afghan government to gain credibility with its people. If this cannot be done in two years and with an increase in NATO support, it is indeed mission impossible. In such a case, the US cannot stay, the war is unwinnable.
As a foreign policy analyst, I see compelling logic in Obama’s choice. The GOP desire for an open-ended commitment until “victory” is achieved assumes that victory is possible. It might not be, or it may only be possible at a cost much higher than the American people are willing to pay, or that is in our national interest to pay. Obama has defined victory as a relatively stable Pakistan alongside an Afghanistan with a functioning government. That cannot happen if the US were to simply leave as quickly as possible. It might happen with the “surge” strategy he has put into place. The 2011 deadline is important since it pressures the Afghans to take seriously the fact they’ll be responsible for their own security in short order. What Obama has done is figure out a strategy to increase the probability of success at a price he thinks the country is willing to pay, and which does not inflict real damage on the country (which an open ended Afghan commitment might do).
The criticism from the left — and the anti-war right — falls more in line with my views, so I have a bias. I think that increasing military involvement over there only means more people will die — Americans and Afghans — and likely will not affect the final outcome. I think Obama should have made the tough decision to say “this war is over, if after eight years the Afghans are unable to maintain their security, then we can’t do it for them.”
Yet that’s easy for me to say on the outside. Obama has to think of the implications of that choice, even if he agrees that we have to leave. It’s one thing to be on the outside, a critic of US foreign policy under Democrats and Republicans, and say “stop the war.” I have advocated a drastically reduced military budget and extremely few military commitments abroad for a long time. To me the military is to defend the homeland, not to try to stabilize the globe.
Yet as President, Obama has to answer those who would say “what about Pakistan, what about the likelihood of a quick Taliban/al qaeda take over in Afghanistan if we simply left? Would this help al qaeda plan a new terror attack?” What Obama did was take those concerns seriously, but also demand an exit plan. His plan is not really a surge, but a planned withdrawal. To the world it sounds like the US is simply increasing its commitment to the fight in Afghanistan. Many dismiss the 2011 start of troop reduction as a mere target likely not to be met. I believe Obama is dead serious about meeting it, and hopes to extricate the US from both of the misguided conflicts during his first term. He has decided to get us out of Afghanistan, but to do so in a way which tries to avoid worst case scenarios and at least sets up a chance for minimal success.
I hope it works. I hope that the pressure on Karzai and the Afghans forces them to make concessions and deals with opponents, and move away from the corrupt and incompetent form of government they now have. I hope the added short term muscle allows the US to make deals with mid-level Taliban and weaken that movement. I hope the time this buys creates a chance to improve the stability of Pakistan.
If not, Obama will be hounded by the excess death and cost — human and monetary — of two more years of war with more American troops involved, with nothing gained. If it does work, Obama will parade his successful Afghan policy as a triumph, hounding those who doubted him today. It’s a gamble, but one Obama makes after careful deliberation and analysis of the situation.