• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Losing Afghanistan A Year Sooner Beats Alternative

My latest for The Atlantic, “Why Obama Is Right to Withdraw From Afghanistan Early,” has been posted. The lede describes a paradox: Everything the critics say about the decision is right–and so is the decision.

The Obama administration’s acceleration of its Afghanistan withdrawal deadline to 2013, a year earlier than planned, is a break with America’s commitment to its NATO and Afghan allies, an abandonment of a mission Obama deemed “essential” in his 2008 campaign, and kills any chances of negotiating an acceptable settlement with the Taliban. It’s also the right thing to do.

The next few paragraphs lay out in brutal detail what an abrupt turnabout this is from the NATO policy that Obama extracted through heavy arm twisting a mere 14 months ago, his Afghanistan goals as laid out in the West Point speech, and his campaign rhetoric about this being the “necessary” war that was derailed by the Iraq distraction. We’ve simultaneously undercut our allies and strengthened the hand of the Taliban. And yet:

[T]he alternative is to continue getting people killed — not to mention inadvertently killing innocents — in a fight we can’t win.

[…]

It’s become painfully obvious in recent months that the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad are, to put it mildly, less than reliable allies. There’s simply no reason to think staying another year is somehow going to turn things around.

Whether NATO’s goals are achievable with unlimited time and resources is debatable. It’s also moot. Most of our allies were going to have, at most, a token force in Afghanistan through the end of 2014. They were there largely at America’s urging and they’ll be happy to leave.

[…]

As with many other Obama foreign policy decisions, one might have wished for a better rollout. Consultation with our NATO allies and partners on the matter would have been good form. And, after a more than a decade of fighting, a presidential speech rather than a casual announcement by the defense secretary would have been more fitting.

Ultimately, though, hastening the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause is the right call.

Much more at the link.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Are you really this naive Jim? I’m seem to remember forecasting 18 months or so ago here when the Afghan reinforcements were being discussed that Obama was giving the Military what they wanted but all the time waiting for the country to come around to the view this was a complete waste of time. The country has now come around to this view. Cynical but when you’re a politician you sometimes have to avoid getting too far in front of public opinion. And before you give me any silly speeches about playing with mens lives etc direct these comments to the buffoons on your side of the aisle who got us into this in the first place. It’s another debacle but Obama will make it look as if we’re leaving without a totally ignominious retreat. It’s the best we can hope for so instead of criticising the guy for creating a face saving smoke screen recognise the American psyche sometimes has to be massaged.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. @Brummagem Joe:

    I’d have to go back an check the polling but I’m fairly certain that public opinion on the Afghan War had turned negative long before Obama sent the reinforcements and went all-in on the Petraeus/McChrystal strategy.

    In retrospect, the President should have listened to his Vice-President rather than his military advisers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Check the polling because the move to more than 50% of the country accepting this was a lost cause has happened in the past year or so.

    In retrospect, the President should have listened to his Vice-President rather than his military advisers.

    It was completely obvious that Obama had zero enthusiasm for Petraeus and McChrystal’s plan but what was he supposed to do when his SoS, SoD, the entire joint chiefs, and wonder boy Petraeus were saying we can make this work versus Joe Biden saying this is nuts. Do be real.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I was actually making this argument at the time Obama was debating how to react to the leaked McChrystal Plan. It’s incredibly cynical but quite possibly true. I can’t prove it, though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. @Brummagem Joe:

    What was he supposed to do when his SoS, SoD, the entire joint chiefs, and wonder boy Petraeus were saying we can make this work versus Joe Biden saying this is nuts.

    Honestly? It’s called leadership. It’s not just important to pick the right advisers, it’s also important to ask them the right questions and overrule them if you think they are wrong.

    You’re right that Obama would probably have taken a lot of political heat for overruling the Generals. Heck, he took heat for accepting the McChrystal plan but not authorizing as many troops as it originally envisioned. But, is it more important to have a President who makes the politically easy decision, or the right decision even if it’s the unpopular one?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t dispute that you were Jim, to me it was fairly obvious as well. Remember all the endless ranting by the right because of the length of the process. It was absolutely obvious. Call it cynical but that’s how the great leader functions in a modern democracy. Interestingly I found a poll and it’s 18 months ago when you saw a decisive shift above 50% against this war.

    http://satyagraha.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abc-afghan-war-polls-11.jpg

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe:: Ah, here I am on record in May 2010:

    My strong guess is that Obama and his senior advisors think that the effort in Afghanistan is Quixotic and want to get out as soon as politically feasible. The “Afghan Surge” was a cynical political gesture to prevent charges from the Right that the president is weak on terrorism that allows Obama to say he gave it his best shot and that our Afghan partners let us down. Come next summer, he fully intends to start bugging out, hopefully with some fig leaf that can tepidly be called close enough.

    Ah, cynical, cynical me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Honestly? It’s called leadership.

    Thanks for pious bromide Doug. Leadership in a democracy (particularly one as polarised as ours where our foreign policy is largely a hostage to domestic politics) largely consists of getting a majority of your followers to accept you’re making prudent decisions which they feel able to support. Sure this messy defiiniton doesn’t fit too well with your heroic view of history but generally that’s how it works. We’re now going to exit Afghanistan feeling reasonably good about ourselves and without creating some huge schism about the rightness of the decision apart from grumbling by few neocon nutcases on the far right. It’s the best we can hope for and the president is to be applauded for his skill in engineering it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. @Brummagem Joe:

    Well, there’s the small fact that foreign and military policy is one of the few areas where POTUS has virtual carte blanche. Yes, there would have been a political sh*tstorm, but there’s not much that anyone could have done to overrule Obama if he decided to go a different route than the Generals were recommending.

    That said, I agree that it’s a good thing that we’re getting out sooner rather than later. I hope it’s a real withdrawal and not one that leaves contingents of American “advisers” in-country for years on end. I just can’t help but think that, to a large degree, we’ve wasted three years, and a countless amount of blood and treasure, there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    Bingo Jim. You’re to be congratulated on your percipience and sophistication. It’s a view I share completely probably because I’m completely cynical as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. David M says:

    I have to agree with Doug and James, getting out is good, but it’s doubtful much has been accomplished during the last several years. Who would have ever though listening to Biden was the right choice? I didn’t mind his selection as VP, but I mostly thought of him as harmless compared to Cheney/Palin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @James Joyner: Perhaps we really do need a king or emperor. Perhaps Democracy really is too messy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In retrospect, the President should have listened to his Vice-President rather than his military advisers.

    Didn’t someone named Samuel Clemens tell us wars are too important to be left to generals?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Ironically, the previous occupant should have probably listened to his military advisors instead of his vice-president.

    @ James: Now all we have to do is work on not taking this course of action in the first place–something that conservatives are better at from out of power! (or at least they were when I was much. much younger)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. grumpy realist says:

    This was a case of handing the rope to the generals and waiting until they had hanged themselves with it. Historically, it’s usually only when something is a total debacle that you can get the politico-military gaggle to admit that they’ve made a mistake. (e.g. WWI). Be glad it looks like we’re pulling out sooner.

    (Not that I don’t think we couldn’t bomb Afghanistan to smithereens, but the position the US is in is in the middle of a family fight, where the family has been conditioned to sleaze, corruption, and revenge cycles for generations. We don’t want to be in the middle of that.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Didn’t someone named Samuel Clemens tell us wars are too important to be left to generals?

    Actually it was Georges Clemenceau

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    The entire thing has been a debacle from day 1 from a geopolitical standpoint. The invasion was an error. Letting it drag out this long was an error. The “surge” was an error. If there’s a complete withdrawal, that will be an error, too. The notion that the we will continue to fund the Afghan military after U. S. troops have been withdrawn and that the Afghans in turn can be trusted to look out for our interests is fatuous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Not that I don’t think we couldn’t bomb Afghanistan to smithereens,

    With what purpose? Revenge? Genocide? National masturbation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Ben Wolf says:

    @Brummagem Joe: You’re right, it was Clemens who said god invented war so americans would learn geography.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I think a case could have been made for the invasion, topple the Taliban and get out of there. Just to show God is not mocked. A bit like those punitive expeditions the British used to mount on the NW Frontier. Since then it’s been downhill all the way. Any slight chance we had of making this work Bush threw away in the first couple of years.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Equally true.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. David Hector says:

    @Doug Mataconis: @Ben Wolf: One detail that everyone keeps forgetting is that Bin Laden is dead. That was the point of the war, to kill the heads of Al Qaeda. Obama has. So how is this counted as a loss? You can have your own opinion but you cannot have your facts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    @David M:

    but it’s doubtful much has been accomplished during the last several years.

    Nothing’s been accomplished. That’s the point !

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @David Hector:

    One detail that everyone keeps forgetting is that Bin Laden is dead.

    Bin Laden was killed by a small team of Navy Seals in Pakistan not by a force of 130,000 men running round the hills of Afghanistan at a cost of about $8 billion a month.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  25. @James Joyner:

    That’s not being cynical about Afghanistan in 2010. This is being cynical about Afghanistan in 2010:

    What does it even mean to win in Afghanistan at this point? We’ve installed a government that is already a dictatorship (the last election was completely bogus and if they will do that with us there watching, imagine what he’ll do after we leave) that maintains it’s position in much of the country primarily through it’s control of the heroin trade.

    We have probably created [the Afghan equivalent of] the Iraq Baath party. In 30 years I wouldn’t be suprised if all those pictures of people shaking hands with Harmad Karzai will be just as embarassing as the pictures of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein are).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. @Stormy Dragon:

    That’s from:

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/afghan-president-u-s-should-reduce-military-presence/#comment-1339952

    (damn you continued absence of Edit button!)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. @Brummagem Joe:

    I think a case could have been made for the invasion, topple the Taliban and get out of there.

    What I’ve called “kick over their sand castle and go home.” The parting words “don’t make me come back here” add value.

    It’s so long ago … but when we were debating places like OTB about “containment” the hawks claimed that it was “too expensive.” Sad. So sad in retrospect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. David Hector says:

    @Brummagem Joe: And your point is? Navy Seals are part of the military are they not? It was a military operation was it not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    @David Hector:

    And your point is?

    Was it really that hard to understand? Helicoptering in a bunch of seals into Pakistan to knock off Bin Laden on the basis of either electronic or local intelligence did not involve having 130,000 men running around Afghanistan at a cost of 8 billion a month.

    Cost/Benefit?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @David Hector: We’ve been occupying Afghanistan for a decade with the stated goal of making the country a western-oriented, reliable ally in the war on terror. We have failed, just as we did in Iraq. It’s the same story since WWII: win every battle and lose the war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    C’mon… those were big victories in Grenada and Panama

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Jib says:

    Interesting no one seems to think May 2, 2011 is an important date in any of this. I think if OBL was still alive, we would not be leaving 1 year early.

    It was clear there was something going on since before Christmas. At the very least a major change in strategy. I have a cousin who is a marine and he was deployed to Afghanistan early Dec. Next thing I know, he is home for Christmas. They had pulled his unit out. It was so fast I did not even get a care package sent to him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Okay I’m being a bit unkind there. We got a draw in Korea, stopped the genocide in the Balkans, shoved that nasty little murderer off his throne in Libya, and won the big one…the cold war. The point being you need limited goals and a reasonably realistic idea of how you’re going to achieve them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. Jib says:

    @Brummagem Joe: And kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and then overthrew the Baath’s and killed off Saddam 10 years later. Was it worth the second invasion and the occupation to kill Saddam? I would answer no, in fact destabilizing a region so critical to our countries oil supply could be seen as a strategic defeat but still, it was the one clear accomplishment of the invasion.

    Our military has never been better operationally or tactically but still we can not seem to end wars in a satisfactory manner. I submit the problem is with us, the American people and what we define as satisfactory. I submit it is juvenile to define victory only in terms of a complete destruction of the enemy followed by a democratic country. And it is my belief that we should grow the f*&% up before we start another war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  35. Joe McCloskey says:

    The real problem with “winning in Afghanistan” has never been about Afghanistan. The problem is Pakistan. My son has been on that border twice. It is Pakis firing many of the shots and funding the Taliban who fire the rest. Once Pakistan’s duplicity became public knowledge last year, there was no way we could continue to support this war. Two options, leave sooner, or attack Pakistan. The latter is not a political option. I am not an Obama supporter, but he is making the right call.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  36. Franklin says:

    @Brummagem Joe: With all due respect, it wouldn’t have been nearly as “easy” as it was to kill bin Laden without all sorts of intelligence and support we’ve gathered. Still, you’re right about the overall cost/benefit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Ron Beasley says:

    Thank you for this James. I hang out here because it is the home of the few remaining sane Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Jib: If killing OBL had been as important as people think that it is (and I’m not saying that it is not significant, just not that much so), al Qaida would be done. Sadly, the best metaphor for the organization is probably Hydra from the Nick Fury comics of the 80s–no matter how many of the leaders were taken out, there was always a new comic the next month with a new leader and a new threat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Ron Beasley: Most sane Repubs were hunted down by the braying mob.

    In a related note, I learned tonight some of the city’s high-profile Tea Partiers hang out at a certain coffee shop/bakery where they harass city employees and council members when they walk in. Have you noticed the Venn diagram circles of “Tea Party” and “jerk” overlap quite a bit?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  40. Gid says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    The point being you need limited goals and a reasonably realistic idea of how you’re going to achieve them.

    Revenge and dismantling the aQ presence were the goals in Afghanistan. Both were achieved. The problem, just like in Iraq, is that it’s politically and financially difficult to withdraw once those are achieved.

    You’re a country that owns more deer rifles than anyone else on the planet and has dozens of sponsorship deals with all manner of sporting goods chains. Once you shoot a single deer, the fact you don’t head home isn’t really that surprising.

    Until Northrop Grumman starts putting their logos on troops uniforms this might remain a mystery as to why the season doesn’t end after the first touch down.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Jib:

    I submit it is juvenile to define victory only in terms of a complete destruction of the enemy followed by a democratic country. And it is my belief that we should grow the f*&% up before we start another war.

    The fact is that much of our foreign policy agenda is the prisoner of domestic politics. It’s most apparent in the case of Israel but its systemic. For example who in his right mind doesn’t know it’s time to leave Afghanistan but yesterday Romney was making a speech attacking the decision and I’m sure we’ll have the usual neocon claque all over this. The problem with this is that it invariably leads to suicidal statecraft as some philosopher said speaking Germany before WW 1 when much the same environment existed. Having said that I do believe the events of the last 10 years have severely chastened us and it will be a cold day in hell before we launch any more major land invasions. This is one of the reasons why despite all the saber rattling I think there’s not much chance that we are going to launch a pre-emptive war against Iran. As to the question or our military I’m not sure I want to get into this because it’s a whole other issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Franklin:

    With all due respect, it wouldn’t have been nearly as “easy” as it was to kill bin Laden

    I don’t recall saying killing Bin Laden was “easy” and if I did how very stupid of me. It certainly wasn’t . But it didn’t require an immense military presence in Afghanistan to achieve it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. Rob in CT says:

    I too have made the punitive expedition comparison. The mission should have been partly punitive expedition, part man-hunt (to the extent the miliary could be directed to the proper place to get Bin Laden & Co. via intel).

    But mission creep happens. Especially when 1/2 of the proper objective (Bin Laden) got away. And we have a lot of folks who are invested (intellectually and/or financially) in the idea of nation building. Some on the Left, some on the Right. So our punitive raid became a nation-building effort in the “graveyard of empires,” under a President who campaigned, in part, against nation-building.

    And yeah, Obama doubled-down (at least temporarily), in line with his campaign rhetoric. I too wish he’d made the braver choice after he did his big review of the situation, but I also recognize that (having not gotten OBL yet at that point) the political situation was such that a politician such he is makes the wrong choice 9 times out of 10. I also hoped to see an immediate change following OBL’s death, which didn’t happen. Now we get “summer 2013.” Meh. Good that we’ve decided on an exit. Bad that took so long.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0