02 December, 2009


You may have heard about the president's speech outlining his plans for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The speech was pretty classic Obama - he presented the extremes of both sides, explained why each, although well-intentioned, is mistaken, and then stakes out a thoughtful, moderate middle option. I also thought he did a good job laying out the different phases of the effort - military, civilian, and broader engagement with Pakistan.

In that sense, I found the address reassuring. I felt after hearing Obama lay out his reasoning that he had been exposed to and forced to consider the arguments in favor of a more-or-less immediate withdrawal. I never thought he would choose that course, in large part because he has been so consistent about escalating in Afghanistan from the beginning of his campaign, but I also think his decision to place a fairly firm and fairly short time limit on our involvement reveals his recognition that the benefits likely to accrue from that escalation are limited and amount to damage-control.

In a piece I've had up on my browser for a while and have been meaning to post, Spencer Ackerman delves under the hood of how Obama's decision making process has progressed, and why.

Sullivan thinks that Obama is placing the ball in the hawks court by given their most beloved tactic - a surge - a chance to work. If it does, great, and if it doesn't, its failure would be the most eloquent argument in favor of withdrawal.

But what does "work" mean? Like in Iraq, the goalposts have been moved so many times (not to mention that the situation is always changing) that "victory", "success" and "work" have little intrinsic meaning left. Obama, to his credit, narrowed down our goals from an incoherent, rudderless nation-building project to 1) rolling back Taliban gains and 2) destroying Al Qaida. But Marc Lynch argues that there is little in Afghanistan that is critical to our national security interests:

Obama needed to demonstrate that Afghanistan matters enough to American vital national interests to justify the escalation. He settled upon al-Qaeda as the reason. This makes sense for an American audience, I suppose... But it's not satisfying analytically. Al-Qaeda is not really active in Afghanistan anymore, and it is not equivalent with the Taliban (either the Afghan or Pakistani variants). Al-Qaeda Central still matters, but the decentralized network and ideological narrative around the world no longer depends on it. Nothing the U.S. does or does not do in Afghanistan will defeat al-Qaeda -- the failure of that movement will happen for its own reasons, if it happens (as it already largely has in the Arab world).

Moreso than the fact that Al-Qaeda is mostly not in Afghanistan any more (because they could always return after we leave) is the fact that our most potent weapon against them is not a massive occupying force. Most of the fight against al-Qaeda progresses based on the clandestine work of the CIA, which uses its intelligence to pinpoint and disrupt Qaeda operatives. This work could be continued and indeed escalated with a fraction of the number of military we have in Afghanistan.

Most of the troops, then, are not concerned with al-Qaeda. They are concerned with fighting the Taliban, building various infrastructure projects, training the Afghan military and police, and in general trying to build a semi-coherent, semi-democratic, semi-functioning state. But why - this seems to have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Of course the argument then is that by building Afghanistan we are undermining potential support for al-Qaeda, since any "failed state" could be used as a "safe haven" for Qaeda training.

But, as Lynch again points out, the logic of this is absurd and dangerous. This would mean that it is in the US's vital national security interest to occupy and rebuild any and all "ungoverned" space in the world. After all, once Afghanistan is as functional as, say, Egypt, then al-Qaeda can simply move to, say, Somalia, and we'll have to follow them there with a 100,000+ NATO presence. Clearly that's not possible or desirable, and no sane person believes we should do that. While ungoverned spaces are a problem, they are a problem that the international community is going to have to learn to address with much more nimble means - better and better-shared intelligence, better law enforcement cooperation, and, when necessary, pinpoint military strikes.

Why then does that crazy logic apply to Afghanistan - especially when most deadly Qaeda attacks were planned and staged from Europe rather than Central Asia? The depressing answer is simply: because we're already there. And I think that Obama combines a recognition of the absurdity of our occupation with a truly deep-seated desire to deliver a blow to al-Qaeda from which it will not soon recover. He knows that pulling out immediately is simply not a real option - it would do real damage to his already precarious domestic agenda, weaken his credibility with the military leadership, and leave many of our allies in the lurch, both in Afghanistan and in NATO.

Instead, his approach is the patented cautious, incremental Obama. To the left, he says: we'll be leaving by the end of my term. To the right he says: I'm committed to salvaging what can be salvaged and I'm going to give our military all the tools to do it. To the Afghan government he says: we're not going to be here for much longer to cover your ass.

It could be a disaster, and if it is, Obama will be a one-term president. But it could look like this: by mid-2012 our troops have left a weak but functioning Iraq, they are mostly deployed away from a corrupt but stable Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden sits in US custody. I think thats the best we're going to get out of this mess.

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