The Afghan decision
I watched Obama’s speech last night with a heavy heart. The President impressed, as always — from the lofty rhetoric to the detailed, logical analysis (and the direct talk to the Afghan people, a nice touch also used in his big Iraq speech so many months ago). There were few surprises after all the leaks ...
I watched Obama’s speech last night with a heavy heart. The President impressed, as always — from the lofty rhetoric to the detailed, logical analysis (and the direct talk to the Afghan people, a nice touch also used in his big Iraq speech so many months ago). There were few surprises after all the leaks and pre-game briefings, but it was a defining moment nonetheless. He made the case as best as he could for the least bad of a terrible set of options. I remain unconvinced by each stage of the logic – the urgency of action, the connection to al-Qaeda, the likely impact of the increased troops, the mechanisms of leverage, the proposed 2011 inflection point towards drawdown. And yet, now that the decision has made, I want the President’s strategy to succeed. The best way to do that is to make sure that he follows through on his promises to keep the goals tightly focused and to avoid stumbling into open-ended occupation and an endless cycle of escalation.
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, though when he began talking my first tweet was "President Bush is talking about 9/11 again." But it’s not satisfying analyticvally. 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).
The moment where Obama recognized this reality was both reassuring and terrifying: when he mentioned Somalia and Yemen. He understands that Afghanistan is not the only, or even the primary, location where those motivated by al-Qaeda’s ideas can operate. But if the next move is to bring governance and stability, and counter-terrorism and COIN, to every ungoverned space on Earth — or even every Muslim-majority ungoverned space on Earth — then we are truly facing bankruptcy. Intellectually, financially, militarily, and politically. We can’t afford to do this in Afghanistan. We certainly can’t afford to do it in Somalia and Yemen… even if we should, which I strongly doubt.
As for the strategy itself, well, we will see. The best parts of his presentation were in his keen recognition of the need to prevent this from becoming the first (well, second) of an insatiable demand for more escalations down the road. He spoke well about limiting the mission to realistic objectives, scaling back grand state-building aspirations and recognizing the limits of American resources. He talked a good game about the era of the blank check being over, about leverage, about accountability — but how exactly is he going to get such leverage? The logic makes sense, increased resourcing now with a clearly demarcated time limit, but will this really galvanize a sense of urgency among the key actors? And even if it did, do they really have the capacity or desire to act in any constructive way?
Most importantly, he spoke effectively about the logic of a clear time horizon, generating political accountability, and converting a brief military respite into lasting political gains through a clear commitment to ultimately withdraw troops. His direct vow that the U.S. did not seek occupation or endless escalation was well said. But the problem is that such commitments are inherently non-credible. To quote that great IR theorist Drake, we hear you talking boo but we just don’t believe you. I haven’t heard anybody yet say that they believed that Obama would really start drawing down in June 2011, no matter what he says. And yet the strategy depends upon that commitment being credible, because that is what is supposed to generate the urgency for local actors to change.
I believe that Obama and his team really want things to work out this way, and have carefully thought through how to work it. But when things don’t go their way, will they really follow through on their promises to draw down? Few people believe that. And if they don’t believe it, then the mechanism of pressure doesn’t operate. So it seems to me that the best way for skeptics such as myself to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise.
UPDATE: President Obama anticipated my argument today in his lunch with columnists yesterday:
"If it doesn’t work, said Obama: "I think there is going to be enormous interest on the part of the American people and on the part of Congress in keeping me to my word that this is not a constant escalation."
Generating domestic pressure to make his commitments on a time horizon and this not becoming an endless series of futile escalations credible will be one of the most important things which Obama’s skeptical supporters can do over the next year. And Obama clearly understands that. Also reassuring is Secretary of Defense Gates today, telling Senators that Afghanistan and Pakistan is unique — i.e. we aren’t heading into Somalia or Yemen. One of the great benefits of the long, transparent review process is that all of these arguments have been fully thrashed out and considered. Even if I don’t agree with every decision made on strategy, I at least am confident that they thought about all of these objections and reservations in advance.