Wanted: an Explanation of Our Afghanistan Policy

I’ve been stewing about this post for some time. Try as I might I can’t come up with a comprehensible explanation of our Afghanistan policy as a policy. George Will’s most recent column is as good a place to start as any in thinking about this:

The ticking clock does not disturb the preternatural serenity that Gen. David H. Petraeus maintains regarding Afghanistan. Officially, the U.S. Central Command is located here; actually, it is wherever he is, which is never in one place for very long. He is away about 300 days a year, flying to and around his vast area of responsibility, which extends from Egypt to where his towering reputation is hostage to a timetable — Afghanistan.

He earned his own chapter in American military history by advocating and presiding over the surge that broke the back of the Iraq insurgency. This was an instance of a military intellectual given full opportunity for the unity of theory and practice.

Today, however, only about half of the surge of 30,000 troops for Afghanistan, announced by the president in his speech at West Point five months ago, have arrived. The rest will be there by the end of August. Eleven months after that, the withdrawal the president promised — in the sentence following the one that announced the increase — is supposed to begin.

President Obama has repeated this commitment several times since then. It is hardly to be doubted that this is, in fact, the policy of the United States. How can one explain Gen. Petraeus’s sang-froid over it? It may be that the general believes that the president is bluffing, kidding, or that he can be dissuaded by conditions on the ground.

Perhaps my understanding of our policy is unkind. As I understand it we are making war in Afghanistan (and the adjoining parts of Pakistan) because it is in our vital national interest. There is no other reason to make war. And it will cease to be a vital national interest in 2011, at which time we will leave.

Hence my confusion. I can understand continuing to make war in Afghanistan because it is believed to be in our vital national interests. And I can understand withdrawing from Afghanistan because making war there is no longer in our vital national interests. I cannot understand continuing to make war at great expense and loss of life and then withdrawing without accomplishing whatever objectives we may have there.

I can understand the position if it is viewed solely through the prism of domestic politics. President Obama campaigned on a policy of victory in Afghanistan. Were he to have withdrawn our forces from Afghanistan on assuming the presidency, he would undoubtedly have been subject to substantial criticism. However, he will be subjected to the same criticism if the U. S. is subject to a successful terrorist attack emanating from that part of the world. The recent abortive Times Square car-bombing highlights the likelihood of such an attack.

So I’m all at sea. Can someone please explain why we should continue to wage war in Afghanistan with a date certain for withdrawal in 2011?

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, General,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    We are at war in Afghanistan so that if a bomb goes off in time square the Government has a story to tell.

    (I don’t believe this is limited to the President.)

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    This will change in 2011?

  3. john personna says:

    See the fable “and perhaps the horse will sing.”

    Any such “timeline” lets the President gauge conditions as deadlines approach. Obama might think it would be great if it was politically safe for him to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, but it might just be a line in the sand, hoping so.

    You know Republicans in Congress would have been all over him if he had been “withdrawing” as a success full attack took place.

    “scare quotes” for words that have political meanings.

  4. john personna says:

    BTW just to say it, this “reason” for our wars is totally dysfunctional. Some people framed it that we’ve got to be over there to stop SUVs from blowing up here, and the idea (however nonsensical) has stuck.

    I guess it’s the primitive human ideas “look busy”, or “do something.” It doesn’t matter if it is exactly the right thing. It matters more if it is a big thing.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I thought everybody believed Obama was lying, they just disagree on the lie. We’re either lying about winning in 11 months or lying about leaving in 11 months.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    And as I recall, Pat Buchanan took up both positions.

    First, he said Obama was pulling a Nixon (peace with honor) and the troops were merely providing a strategic pause to permit U.S. withdrawal in a manner that least harms U.S. prestige.

    Then he went the other direction and said Obama was pulling an LBJ, we’re in pure escalation mode and the surge will presage more military commitments down the road.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think what we may be doing is attempting a political deal with some elements of the Taliban. We could not hope for any such deal if we were being visibly beaten in battle.

    I would guess we’ll end up with some federalized sort of mish-mash of tribal areas, with the capital under Karzai’s control.

    We’re also keeping pressure on Afghan Taliban to avoid them reinforcing Pakistan Taliban.

    That plus we’re keeping our fingers crossed a lot.

  8. Andy says:

    Dave,

    As I recall, the President’s promise was only to begin withdrawing troops in 2011. Like the Iraqi surge, that may have to happen anyway for reasons of sustainability. It seems to me the President has left himself a lot of wiggle-room to make a decision in 2011.

    And I think it’s pretty clear that domestic politics is driving the Afghan policy bus. It’s not just the President’s campaign promises, it’s the fact it would be politically suicidal to simply leave after nine years with not much to show for it, particularly for a Democrat. So my basic analysis is almost unchanged from five months ago.

    Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, is in a kind of “sweet spot” (poor terminology, I know) where it is not bloody and disruptive enough to cause the American people to force US disengagement – but at the same time a withdrawal or disengagement that looks like we didn’t “win” is a political nonstarter. That’s why I still think Pres. Obama’s likely strategy in Afghanistan is to replicate the so-called “surge” by creating a perception of success that provides the domestic political space to enable either a US disengagement or a more fundamental change in strategy.

    And finally, I think one should be wary of disaggregating “vital national interests” from domestic politics. They are really one in the same if you think about it. Also, since the end of the Cold War, there is a lot of disagreement domestically over what our national interests are or should be and even where there is agreement the policy approaches differ substantially.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Andy, I agree that you can’t disaggregate vital national interests from domestic politics completely. But they aren’t synonymous, either.

  10. Andy says:

    No, not synonymous, but one flows from the other, at least for Clausewitzians.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that’s a mischaracterization of Clausewitz. The statement in question is variously translated as “War is politics by other means” and “War is policy by other means”. I don’t he meant electoral politics.

  12. Andy says:

    Dave,

    I meant domestic politics more broadly than simply electoral politics, though in a democracy the two are closely related. For a Clausewitzian, politics is the competition for resources and power in a political community. It’s that competition that ultimately defines what our national interests are – IOW, interests, particularly vital interests (which means you’re willing to go to war to preserve them) cannot be separated from the people/political community (ie. “domestic politics”).

  13. c.red says:

    Is it acceptable, domestically and/or internationally, to just say screw it and walk away? I would guess the ultimate answers on those are yes and no respectively and we have to decide which is more important.

    I don’t disagree with the post or with the general cynicism expressed about Afghanistan, but I would toss this into the discussion – Is Afghanistan an ally? And, if so, what is our obligation to this particular ally?

  14. The Q says:

    RFK on Meet the Press, March 17, 1968…his words oddly prescient in shooting down the “we’ve got to be over there to stop SUVs from blowing up here, and the idea (however nonsensical) has stuck.

    RFK 42 years ago on fighting communists “over there’ in Vietnam:

    “Do we have the right here in the United States to say that we’re going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have… millions of people, refugees, kill women and children? As we have… I very seriously question whether we have that right… Now we’re saying we’re going to fight there so that we don’t have to fight in Thailand, so that we don’t have to fight on the West Coast of the United States, so that they won’t move across the Rockies. But do we… our whole moral position, it seems to me, changes tremendously.”

    Amazing how times DON”T change all that much.

    These wars are draining our ability to truly fight terrorists (see Dr. Joyner’s essay on the incompetence of HSA’s no fly list because our resources are being squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  15. john personna says:

    It would be nice to dump an impressive amount of money (but small compared to another year of military operations) on some NGOs, and say “now it is time for non-military recovery.”

    The “parting gift” would put a fig leaf on the “walk away.”

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    I am genuinely sorry for the Afghan people. IMO to the extent that we have interests in the country at all they point to a long-term largely non-military (although partially military) commitment. What they are likely to get is bupkis as we beat a hasty path to the exit.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    c. red, under the law of occupation, primarily under the Hague Conventions and the Fourth Geneva convention, the U.S. has a responsibility to restore public order and safety and provide humanitarian assistance. The NGOs like Amnesty Int’l in the past have said that the U.S. has not yet done so in Iraq/Afghanistan. I don’t know their current view.

    Unlike Iraq, I don’t believe the U.S. is operating under additional directions of any international organization. We may be obligated by NATO commitments to consult with our allies before leaving.

  18. Hope and change!

  19. Juneau: says:

    Like all things with this Administration, deadlines, promises, and guarantees are all political ploys that have almost no bearing on the proper approach to a situation.

    This Administration’s policies are calculated, not for their effectiveness, but for their face value in appeasing this or that faction of the electorate. This is why the promises made by Obama are not worth the air he expels from his lungs in making them. The Afghanistan withdrawal policy is no exception…

  20. Drew says:

    “I can understand continuing to make war in Afghanistan because it is believed to be in our vital national interests. And I can understand withdrawing from Afghanistan because making war there is no longer in our vital national interests. I cannot understand continuing to make war at great expense and loss of life and then withdrawing without accomplishing whatever objectives we may have there.”

    Perfectly said and exactly right. Its hard to imagine a sane human being disagreeing with this.

    “I can understand the position if it is viewed solely through the prism of domestic politics. President Obama campaigned on a policy of victory in Afghanistan. Were he to have withdrawn our forces from Afghanistan on assuming the presidency, he would undoubtedly have been subject to substantial criticism.”

    I assume you mean “understand” in the purely intellectual sense. And I, too, understand Andy’s pragmatic comment. But really, folks. Wasn’t this what the whole Viet Nam debate was about? Either you go in to win, or you get out. But don’t dick around. (And hasn’t Colin Powell said this was the primary view/lesson he took from his Viet Nam experience?) But continuing Affganny for the sake of Obama’s poll numbers or the tone of the chattering classes’ editorials? That’s sick.

    “However, he will be subjected to the same criticism if the U. S. is subject to a successful terrorist attack emanating from that part of the world.”

    Tough. You don’t run for President based upon assumptions of warm baths filled with rose petals. Does he want to be President, with all the attendant issues, or a community organizer?

    I don’t profess to be sufficiently schooled in the Afghan circumstances or strategy to weigh in on the merits of stay or go. But this thread is just ghoulish. Stay or go based on politics?

    As Andy points out, we need to be real, we aren’t in Kansas anymore, but let’s not “understand” it.

  21. john personna says:

    We are all pretty cynical here, and we do understand why it is hard for a government to disengage in these circumstances.

    You can say the President should change the whole dynamic, but I think some of you might enjoy it if he tried, and you could push back on it.

  22. john personna says:

    (Or do you think “we’ve got to fight them there to be safe here” arguments are totally exhausted?)

  23. steve says:

    I think our current policy recognizes that we cannot stay in Afghanistan forever. it hinges upon developing legitimate Afghan governance. If we can take Kandahar and emplace legitimate government, it may be worth staying a bit longer. If we cannot get Karzai, or someone else, to run a legitimate government, it makes no sense to stay there with our current numbers. Draw down and go to a pure CT approach.

    At some point you stop throwing good money after bad. FWIW, I dont think we can rehab Karzai, but I could be wrong. Pakistan is still more worried about India than our potential terrorists. We pretty much ignored Afghanistan to concentrate on the not needed Iraq war. That probably sealed our Afghanistan fate.

    Steve

  24. Fog says:

    All hail the clown who got us into this without clear objectives or an exit strategy.

  25. sam says:

    @Drew

    “However, he will be subjected to the same criticism if the U. S. is subject to a successful terrorist attack emanating from that part of the world.”

    Tough. You don’t run for President based upon assumptions of warm baths filled with rose petals. Does he want to be President, with all the attendant issues, or a community organizer?

    True enough. Would that you would apply that limpid analysis is the situation he faced as an incoming president inheriting a multi-dimensional mess.

  26. Juneau: says:

    We pretty much ignored Afghanistan to concentrate on the not needed Iraq war. That probably sealed our Afghanistan fate.

    Everyone was saying the same things about Iraq. Why is it that a certain type of person always displays this almost sick pessimism, disguised as pragmatism? There are huge differences between what is going on now in Afghanistan and ALL previous conflicts. Despite what the guilt-ridden left seeks to convince us of, we are not there as conquerors of the populace, we are there as liberators.

    All of the folks who postulate about whether or not we are welcomed there by the majority of the population are, quite simply, silly… Just ask the Afghani women that can now go to school, drive, have an opinion, etc. without fear of being stoned to death.

    Our service men and women are over there dying for a cause that 99.9% of them believe in. While some sit behind here at home and snipe and whine, throwing their hands over their eyes, exclaiming “But is it even winnable?”

    What luxury it is to set back and ponder the empty words of a Commander in Chief, and whether or not to withdraw at a certain time based upon his equally empty campaign promises! Reality bites, folks, and the more Obama’s false time-table is discussed as a valid milestone for withdrawal, the more likely it becomes that our policy in Afghanistan is driven by Obama’s personal political goals, rather than reality of the circumstances.

    At this stage, please spare me the weeping over our “lost” opportunity in Afghanistan because of Iraq. We’re at war. We have to win it. The moment the importance of this goal is reduced by making it equal to Obama’s political concerns, then the left’s hand-wringing prognostications of defeat are closer to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I wonder if that is the goal..

  27. john personna says:

    Just curious Juneau, if we held an election (plebiscite) in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, asking those populations if they wanted us to stay, would you support the outcome?