Where there’s a Will, there’s a way out of Afghanistan…and an even bigger trap…

What’s a guy to do when the right is right? Especially when it’s right about what it’s been wrong about for so long. Especially if it’s right for the wrong reasons? Especially if it’s right about something that the sensible center and a president you otherwise admire is so wrong about?   The simple answer, of ...

581459_090901_roth2b2.jpg
581459_090901_roth2b2.jpg

What's a guy to do when the right is right? Especially when it's right about what it's been wrong about for so long. Especially if it's right for the wrong reasons? Especially if it's right about something that the sensible center and a president you otherwise admire is so wrong about?  

The simple answer, of course, is to swallow hard, agree and change the subject. The other approach is to blog.

What’s a guy to do when the right is right? Especially when it’s right about what it’s been wrong about for so long. Especially if it’s right for the wrong reasons? Especially if it’s right about something that the sensible center and a president you otherwise admire is so wrong about?  

The simple answer, of course, is to swallow hard, agree and change the subject. The other approach is to blog.

Blogging allows room for (a little) nuance. So here’s where that begins: When I refer to the “right” above, I actually only mean one guy, although he himself is a pillar of the conservative establishments, George Will.

Specifically, I am referring to his op-ed today entitled “It’s Time to Leave Afghanistan.” In this instance, not only is he correct, he is ahead of the curve, a place that must be as shockingly unfamiliar to most of his followers as a visit to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a place Will correctly cites as a great case study in the futility of U.S. efforts in that tragically embattled land.

Yet, every so often Will hits the nail on the head and this is one of those times. And there is no greater proof to that than moments after the newspaper containing his column landed on my doorstep, I heard Joe Scarborough saying that the right was up in arms about it. This is where we get to the part about Will being right about what the right has been wrong about for so long. Because while Afghanistan is increasingly Obama’s war (and will be only more so if he accedes to the recommendations of his battlefield commander Stanley McChrystal to up our troop commitments and other investments there), it didn’t start out that way.

We entered the country in an understandable national spasm of anger toward al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11. Any president would have done that, I think. But rather than keeping the mission narrowly focused on exacting punishment and reducing the capabilities of the terrorists and their protectors in a swift and limited action, we accepted the idea, almost without debate, that America should wage a war on terror. The alternative approach, argued the right, would be to treat it as purely a criminal matter which would underplay the risks and produce inadequate responses. This is true, of course. Which is why they said it. But, it was a false choice. There is a middle ground. One can imagine targeted, tactical responses to specific threats that would likely be just as effective in reducing the risks to America and Americans … or more so when you consider that myriad escalating and amplifying effects of pursuing the war strategy as we have.

As for Will being right for the wrong reasons, I can only speculate about his motivations, of course. They may be very narrowly founded on a desire to do what’s in the national interest. I hope that’s all there is to it and not a desire to further politicize the sensitive decision Obama faces on this issue (see today’s lead story in the Times by Peter Baker and Dexter Filkins). It is in the interest of no Americans to see this war spiral downward into an even worse, more futile entanglement than it is. As Will correctly says, now is the time to reverse course, define goals even more narrowly and undertake the exit.  Keep resources nearby. Strike fiercely against imminent threats using the distance weapons and, where essential, special forces. But stop trying to win the unwinnable. Recognize that shutting one terrorist enclave only creates another somewhere else. Stop lying to ourselves about Hamid Karzai who is rapidly becoming as crappy a former American puppet as any in the long list of supremely crappy former American puppets we have ever propped up. Disconnect ourselves from the futile charade of saying we are trying to contain the poppy business when in fact what we are often doing is protecting its key players … men who are certainly responsible for more deaths worldwide than all the terrorist enemies in the region.

And in so doing, move to a new footing in Pakistan, reduce the risk of our getting involved in or exacerbating that country’s deep civil tensions. Focus on securing their nuclear weapons and reducing any threat they may pose to India, our most “natural” important ally in the region.

In short, President Obama should recognize that of all the mistakes made early in his administration, trading “the wrong war” in Iraq for “the right war” in AfPak was probably the biggest and that he has a chance to stop and reverse course now, based on what he has learned (and Admiral Mullen seems to know and imply through his public statements) and not just get out of the country, not just avoid an even longer-term involvement in this expanding war, but also to once and for all reject the Bush administration’s to the “war on terror” not just in name but in deed.

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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