Stephen M. Walt

Why Afghanistan was Obama’s biggest mistake

Why Afghanistan was Obama’s biggest mistake

The killing of 16 Afghan civilians — nine of them children — by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.

Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don’t have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren’t so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama’s foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.

A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can’t place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn’t a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency — no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" — which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.

And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn’t for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.

Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn’t going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we’ve spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend’s events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.  

Here’s what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:

"America’s odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."

It didn’t take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can’t fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.