Preventing Afghanistan From Becoming Iraq

Preventing Afghanistan From Becoming Iraq

President Obama faces so many foreign policy crises today that it almost seems mean spirited to suggest he also think about problems he may face tomorrow. It looks like he wants to get away: enjoying a golf outing on Father’s Day in Rancho Mirage, slipping the leash (as he put it, likening himself to a circus bear) to get a burger without the knowledge or protection of his Secret Service detail, looking forward wistfully to sipping a tropical cocktail on a beach when his term is done. He has a full plate right now, however, and must defer retirement until January 21, 2017.  

The crises largely result from wishful thinking about the state of the world and somewhat lofty thinking about the role the US must play. If President Obama could ever have elicited favorable actions based on America’s soft power — the ability to attract others on the basis of our values and vision — that day is now past. People who thought of President Obama as a transformational figure also hoped that certain constants in international relations would also be transformed. We need now to exploit the tools of hard power — diplomatic pressure, alliance formation, sanctions, military assistance, military action if need be — to achieve outcomes that serve not just US national security interests but also those of our allies and friends around the world. President Obama has mistakenly equated hard power with military action in the form of US troops on the ground, thus betraying a relatively incomplete understanding of foreign policy. From an adroit use of hard power, soft power will return. The political science scholar Kenneth Waltz once wrote that policemen are still doing their jobs even if they are not swinging their nightsticks. The same applies in foreign policy — we can do a lot without swinging our nightstick, but we can’t do anything if we don’t have a police force in place.

Much debate has swirled about why Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected a bilateral security agreement with the United States. Senator Tim Kaine argued on the June 18 Newshour broadcast that it was Maliki’s decision to reject U.S. troops, only to have Senator John McCain say moments later that Maliki grew frustrated because the U.S. troop offer "cascaded down" from some 20,000 to 3,000. In the end, such a small number was not worth the trouble and it would be a lie, said McCain, to claim otherwise. Both senators might agree, however, that regardless of who was at fault for the failure to reach an agreement, if US troops had remained in a residual capacity, they might have been able to help Iraq’s army avoid the reversals over the past week. Now, because we have no troops on the ground, we are handicapped in what we can do and so can only respond in an ad hoc manner. Our political standing has been compromised, our in-country intelligence resources are limited, and our military is forced to respond defensively to the enemy initiative. It is an ugly scenario and we face the prospect of Iraq being divided into three parts, one of which may well become a safe haven where anti-American terrorists will plot attacks on the US homeland. 

Does any of this sound like what happened in Afghanistan before 9/11? It should, and should also serve as a reminder to President Obama and his national security team that today’s crisis in Iraq may very well be a harbinger of a crisis tomorrow in Afghanistan. The president appears to be sticking to his position that removing all troops from Iraq was not only necessary but also wise. He has committed to doing the same in Afghanistan, promising that all US troops will be out by the end of 2016. The developing crisis in Iraq ought to make this administration think twice about the wisdom of that decision. The president seems to want his legacy to be that he brought the troops home, but that will not make him proud if in doing so he leaves behind in Afghanistan the kind of chaos we now see in Iraq.

So what should he do? First, address the crisis in Iraq and learn from the mistake. Terrorists who are slaughtering fellow Iraqis, and can be expected to do the same to Americans, are now filling the military void. The wish that the terrorist threat in Iraq would go away has proven to be vain; we now have to confront them again before they can create a safe haven from which to attack the United States. Second, ask Pentagon planners for a realistic assessment of the number of troops they will need to ensure that the fiasco in Iraq is not repeated in Afghanistan. We now see that a policy of withdrawal in Iraq has made the region and the US less secure; repeating that policy in Afghanistan is unlikely to produce a different outcome. Third, declare that the timeline of departure by 2016 has now been suspended and begin the lengthy process of working with the new Afghan administration to ensure the Taliban are unable to repeat the scenario now unfolding in Iraq.