Did Obama conduct an honest review of the true range of policy options available to the U.S. on Afghanistan…or did he play with a stacked deck?
For those concerned about U.S. foreign policy and national security (and with the number of wars today involving the U.S., it is hard to see how anyone could fail to be concerned), one of the critical questions about the recent White House review of Afghan policy must surely be whether or not the White House actually conducted an honest, i.e., open-minded review as opposed to stacking the deck by rejecting up front a portion of the options. Truth in advertising, I have already expressed my opinion on the issue, but of course I have no certain knowledge of what happens in the White House, so this remains an open issue to which the American people, not to mention the people of Afghanistan, need an answer.
The array of feasible options is broad, extending from immediate withdrawal to full-scale colonization, with endless permutations between those extremes. Consider…
Withdrawal. It can reasonably be argued that withdrawal is justified on several grounds. For each point reasonable counter-arguments also exist, but withdrawal is an option that needs to be evaluated.
- No army threatening the U.S. exists in Afghanistan, so the presence of the U.S. army is unjustified. If al Qua’ida remains a threat, quiet police work seems at least as likely to eliminate the threat as a public, ponderous, highly visible conventional military attack. The fact that U.S. decision makers apparently believe no more than 100 al Qua’ida members remain in Afghanistan makes this conclusion hard to argue with.
- The mere presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan arguably is transforming the Afghan conflict from a precisely defined war against a terrorist group into a broad national resistance movement that will tempt all patriotic Afghans into a war against U.S. forces. Such a transformation would be a disaster for the U.S.
- Not only (Point #1) is there no enemy army threatening the U.S. in Afghanistan, the U.S. also has no friend there. A regime engaging in electoral corruption, financial corruption, and drug dealing does not exactly seem to merit the sacrifice the U.S. is making.
- Years of confused aggression, financial corruption, and misgovernment have left the world’s last superpower looking a bit flea-bitten. Compared to all the other problems facing the U.S., is a ground war in Central Asia really worth the cost?
- Obama was unable to articulate persuasively an answer to the core question: will it work? The experience of eight years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, not to mention Soviet intervention there, U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, and a generation of Israeli attacks on Lebanon make an incredibly strong historical case that the U.S. will fail to create a stable, friendly society through war in Afghanistan or any other Muslim society. Unless Washington can make a persuasive case that it can defy this historical trend, it should change its strategy immediately.
Withdrawal Light. The withdrawal option itself contains a rich array of alternative implementation strategies. “Withdrawal Light” covers a subset of options that seek to shift the emphasis from military to civil action. One of the strong points of “withdrawal light” is that the various options are not really alternatives but compatible aspects of a single composite strategy that really is not “withdrawal” at all but “reformed commitment.”
- The most obvious may be to offer flatly to withdraw whenever the various Afghan parties manage to negotiate a ceasefire. Indeed, one might well imagine that this is in fact Obama’s real policy and that he has judged that goal to be one he should not discuss in public. If this is where he wants to go, surging first is a terrible gamble that not only risks failure but also creates a political momentum in favor of more and more military effort, with each new investment being justified to “make good on” the previous one.
- Another variation would be to make the replacement of American forces by Muslim forces the core of U.S. policy. One could certainly argue that at the moment the Taliban has little incentive to stop fighting the U.S., since it clearly realizes that it has momentum and can almost certainly outlast the patience of the American public. For the Taliban to oppose an all-Muslim force would be far more difficult. Erdogan is on his way to the U.S. Although Obama missed an opportunity in his speech to commend Turkey’s willingness to help in Afghanistan and express his understanding for Turkey’s determination not to do so by fighting, he will have, with Erdogan’s visit, a second chance effectively to offer Turkey leadership of a global moderate Muslim crusade, backed by, say, enormous U.S. contributions of funds to the U.N.
- Perhaps the most attractive “withdrawal light” option is to take the moral high ground by emphasizing a combination of economic development, political reform, and an all-out war against illegal narcotics. A war against heroin refinement, regardless of who owns the labs, would go far to make the case the U.S. truly is in Afghanistan to help build a better society and thus would open wide the door for Afghan nationalists to cooperate with the U.S. rather than the Taliban.
Military surge. "Knock 'em back on their heels and then cut a deal" might conceivably work, but a convincing case that the relatively tiny increment of 30,000 soldiers will significantly advance the prospects of pacifying a country the size of Afghanistan has not yet been made. Admittedly, the surge might persuade the Taliban that withdrawal to Waziristan for a year or so in order to allow Obama to retreat before his reelection campaign would be the better part of valor. Now that’s a deal that would at least make short-term military and political sense, though it would leave Afghanistan with a very big problem for the future. A betting man might put his money on this as Obama’s real policy, and it is certainly understandable why he would keep such a policy to himself. In fact, I, not to mention Malalai Joya and many others, might well accept such a policy as an improvement over the war party’s mania for violence…provided that real efforts are made to pave the way. Such efforts should effectively push the U.S. back toward “withdrawal light.” Obama gave no reason for us to expect that this is what he has in mind, but perhaps he will surprise us.
Colonization. One must never forget the very real possibility that this is, after all, about oil and influence (e.g., vis-à-vis Moscow and Beijing) more than anything else. If this is really Iraq redux, Washington will excuse Kabul’s corruption, avoid attacking Kabul’s own heroin labs, build massive military bases. What might disprove such a cynical hypothesis? A key indicator that such traditional imperialist thinking has been rejected by Obama would be the end of U.S. opposition to including Iran in the growing regional hydrocarbon pipeline network. Pipelines will be built and will most likely go either through Afghanistan or Iran. Supporting their emplacement in Iran would greatly diminish the importance to the U.S. of Afghanistan and simultaneously give Iran great incentive to promote regional stability.
If Obama’s review honestly evaluated all options, and Obama made his decision on the basis of that analysis, then one must at least credit him with having done his best to resolve an issue that is without doubt agonizingly complex (in the conversational and scientific senses of the word). One could applaud him for having brought fresh thinking to a tragically mismanaged U.S. policy. Right or wrong, Americans could be proud of having an open-minded leader.
On the other hand, if Obama stacked the deck by considering only the highly biased set of options presented to him by his military commander in the field, then the effort should be condemned as a fraud little better than the previous administration’s mindless addiction to war as the policy tool of choice.
Peter Baker’s December 6 front page account in the New York Times made a great effort to portray Obama's policy review as honest and thorough. Unfortunately, read carefully, it provides absolutely no evidence that anything except the extremely narrow range of military options carried back by McChrystal was considered. Those options ranged from “a few more troops” through “slightly more troops than that” to “a noticeable number of additional troops.” If the White House evaluation had taken five minutes, it would have selected the central option; that’s how things work. The White House option in fact took some time but still ended up in the same place. Perhaps that tells us something...something very worrisome.