Stephen M. Walt

Some counter-spin on Afghanistan

Some counter-spin on Afghanistan

Last Friday I suggested that one reason we keep slogging along in Afghanistan is the natural tendency for military organizations to portray their own efforts in the most favorable possible light. This tendency is not unique to militaries, of course; most organizations (including universities) prefer to talk about their virtues and achievements and find it harder to acknowedge shortcomings and setbacks.  

In a democracy, it isn’t the miltiary’s job to decide where and when to fight, or for how long. But they don’t like to lose either (which is by itself an admirable trait), and one should therefore expect them to do a lot of spinning, especially in the absence of clear and obvious signs of progress.

With that warning in mind, two sentences caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ much-publicized remark to cadets at West Point. His whole speech is well worth reading, but here’s the money quote:

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Notice the not-so-subtle implication: if it would be foolish to send a big army into Asia in the future, might we also question the wisdom of having one there now? Or to put it somewhat differently: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly as it is today but U.S. forces were not present at all, would President Obama be getting ready to send 100,000+ troops there?  I very much doubt it. And if that’s the case, then the only reason we are still fighting there is some combination of the "sunk cost" fallacy, misplaced concerns about credibility, overblown fears of an al Qaeda "safe haven," and the usual fears about domestic political payback.

The second sentence that grabbed my attention came at the end of Dexter Filkins’ New York Times Book Review piece on Bing West’s new book The Wrong War.  Filkins writes (my emphasis):

As ‘The Wrong War’ shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed.  But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return."

Put those two statements together, and they cast further doubt on the positive spin we’ve been hearing about how the Taliban is on the run, the Afghan "surge" is working, and how we’ll be able to start leaving by 2014. I think the latter claim is correct, by the way, but not because we will have succeeded in creating a stable Afghanistan. We’ll eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate, but it will be because we’ve finally figured out that the stakes there aren’t worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success.  It’s just taking us longer to figure that out than it should.