- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
McClatchy news service reports that the Obama administration is starting to back away from the president’s July 2011 timeline for a de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Instead, "the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014."
Assuming the report is accurate, it shouldn’t be a surprise. I don’t know anyone who thought the U.S. could turn things around in eighteen months, and that particular deadline was little more than a piece of political sleight-of-hand designed to make escalation look like a temporary step. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the right one (I think it wasn’t), but Obama’s straddle on this issue is one reason why some of his most enthusiastic supporters have become disenchanted.
Of course, there’s a long tradition of presidents telling the American people that some new military mission won’t take long and won’t cost that much. Nixon told us he has a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War (he didn’t) and Bill Clinton said U.S. troops would only be in Bosnia for 12 months (it was more like nine years). President George W. Bush and his advisors said that the occupation of Iraq would be brief and pay for itself yet we are still there today. And now Obama has done essentially same thing: selling an increased committed by suggesting that it is only temporary, and then backing away from his own self-imposed deadline.
This report also suggests that the war is not going as well as we’re being told. We may be achieving some successes on the battlefield, but as with Iraq, the real challenge is political. Success requires building some sort of effective and legitimate governing authority in Afghanistan, and achieving some sort of political reconciliation among various contending groups. If this goal means building a strong, centralized Afghan state (something that has never existed before) then we are talking about an effort that will take years, costs tens of billions of additional dollars, and could still fail. It also requires rooting out corruption in the Karzai government, but the news on that front is hardly encouraging. Al Qaeda’s leaders are no longer in Afghanistan and they don’t need safe havens there in order to threaten the U.S., so it is no longer even clear why we are engaged in a massive effort at social engineering in this country. Or as I’ve said before: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today, but no U.S. forces were present, would Obama have ordered 100,000-plus troops to go there?
I don’t think so, but he’ll keep them there for the rest of his presidency (whether he gets one or two terms), and he or his successor could end up facing essentially the same choice in 2014 that he is facing today. Barring a new approach from the United States, does anyone think it will be any easier to change course then?