The Call

Afghanistan: Going long or going home

Afghanistan: Going long or going home

by Ian Bremmer

In Afghanistan, even the good news isn’t so good. The country managed to hold a presidential election in August, but there aren’t many people inside or outside the country who considered it free and fair. It looks increasingly like Hamid Karzai will win without a second round, but his legitimacy will remain under a very large, very dark cloud. He’ll face open revolt from Tajiks in the north, who overwhelmingly opposed his candidacy. And as evidenced by the significant recent expansion of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan’s major cities and the assassination last week of the country’s second-ranking intelligence officer, it will even become harder to secure Kabul. No one should have much confidence that a second round would do much to restore Karzai’s credibility.

In addition, military operations against the Taliban inside Pakistan achieved some actual success this summer, but that has probably pushed some militants across the border into Afghanistan to harass coalition forces there. U.S. casualties have increased, though that’s not surprising given the more aggressive operations of larger numbers of US troops. But last week’s U.S. bombing on a Taliban target, which killed dozens of civilians, is just the latest in a series of setbacks for coalition military operations.

More worrisome: It’s becoming increasingly clear that Afghanistan won’t be able to stand on its own anytime soon. U.S. military officials report that the training of Afghan soldiers is well behind schedule. For the next two or three years, with coalition forces at their present levels, Afghan troops won’t be nearly strong enough to maintain even the current level of security, let alone make any meaningful contribution to an aggressive counterinsurgency effort.

Inside Afghanistan, more locals than ever want the US out, whatever the cost. There’s also dwindling support for the war in the United States, as the American media increasingly turns its attention from an economy beginning to improve toward the growing death toll in Afghanistan.

Within the Obama foreign-policy team, there looks to be a growing divergence of opinion on what to do next. There appears to be an internal consensus that the current strategy isn’t working. But senior officials appear more divided on whether to “go long” or “go home.” In the go long group, those who want more troops and more resources because “failure isn’t an option,” we see Secretary Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, most of the generals on the ground, and most Republicans in Congress. In the go home camp, those who want to pull troops out before things get much worse, are Vice President Biden, most of Obama’s political team, and a growing number of senior Democrats. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to have grown much more skeptical.

In short, Afghanistan is becoming Obama’s first lasting foreign-policy crisis. A major terrorist attack somewhere in the world carried out by militants trained in Afghanistan could shift international public opinion toward greater engagement. Short of that, U.S. public opposition to the war will likely grow steadily over the coming year, bringing the issue to a head just in time for U.S. midterm elections and driving a wedge between members of the president’s own party.