Shadow Government

Obama won’t stay the course in Afghanistan — then what?

By Kori Schake Skepticism grows in President Obama’s party about his presumed endorsement of General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the strategy and resources required to succeed in Afghanistan. Senate Armed Services Chair Carl Levin has expressed skepticism about sending more forces until the Afghans contribute more themselves. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doubts there will be ...

By Kori Schake

Skepticism grows in President Obama’s party about his presumed endorsement of General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the strategy and resources required to succeed in Afghanistan. Senate Armed Services Chair Carl Levin has expressed skepticism about sending more forces until the Afghans contribute more themselves. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doubts there will be public support. Lynn Woolsey, Chairman of the Progressive Caucus, is threatening to lead opposition to funding the President’s wars.

I believe Obama will not continue on the trajectory he set out for redoubling our efforts to win the "good war" in Afghanistan. He and his advisors lacked — and continue to lack — understanding of the importance of succeeding in Iraq, or why the surge strategy and additional forces changed the political dynamic in that country. His priorities are domestic, and he even encouraged trade-offs between international security and domestic policy by suggesting that his health care plan was affordable because (by his accounting) it would cost less than the wars we are fighting.

So I suspect that over the course of the next 9 months, the administration will conclude that: (a) the sticker price for achieving its aims in Afghanistan is too high; (b) international partners are exhausted with this effort; and (c) Afghans aren’t providing the indigenous partnership that our strategy relies on to be successful. I don’t share these views, but reasonable people who mean our country well could conclude them.

The only wrong choice — both morally and strategically — would be for the President to continue sending our country’s sons and daughters to war if he is unwilling to commit the resources and effort to win it. That would be the true and tragic Vietnam parallel.

American power is pervasive and diverse enough to protect our interests without winning all our wars, as Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia demonstrate. But if the President winds down our effort to construct an Afghanistan that will not be a breeding ground for terrorist attacks, what are the policy alternatives for keeping Americans safe from terrorism?

The first is better defense: pushing out the perimeter of our defense against attack and building in layers of defense (inspecting cargo at ports of embarkation, checking flight manifests before planes come into U.S. airspace, tracing money from suspect organizations and individuals, cross-referencing databases in local/state/federal law enforcement and other sources). Much of this is already routine.

The second is relinquishing the concept of holding states accountable for actions occurring in their territory, and either gaining their tacit cooperation or violating their sovereignty to kill or capture people we feel threatened by. This was the approach to terrorism before 9/11. It accepts the world is dangerous and manages consequences rather than causes. However, clandestine operations are the key component of this approach, and the Attorney General’s belief that even outside legal opinion does not protect agents could prevent this from being executable.

The third is ceding Afghanistan to squalor but redoubling our partnership with Pakistan. Many in the so-called Muslim world are surprised at our effort in Afghanistan, a society they consider at the far margin of affecting Muslim attitudes. Pakistan is understandably skeptical of American enthusiasm now, given our support for the mujaheddin, use of their intelligence community’s relationships, and sanctimonious intrusiveness in their country’s affairs. The Obama administration is off to a good start in relations with Pakistan, and could channel assistance for public education programs and other tools to shape a positive future in Pakistan along with our encouragement and assistance in their fight against extremism. A failed Afghanistan could be a containment problem if we had a successful Pakistan.

The fourth is cordoning off places we consider suspect: restricting travel and immigration, considering people suspect by passport rather than action. Of course, this categorical denial diminishes our ability to foster moderation in those societies by closing them off to education, relatives, and experiences that show them a different America than terrorists paint. Moreover, it redoubles the punishment of people unfortunate enough to be born in a society riven by terrorists in their midst.

The fifth, and I believe least damaging, alternative would be for the administration to broaden its scope of cooperation with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, even Iran and other countries that might be willing to adopt common cause with us for the long and arduous work of building an Afghanistan that would not be a threat to its own people and ours. This would require acknowledging to the Russians our culpability in their failed occupation of Afghanistan, working with them and the Chinese on border control measures they use repressively with their own publics but would help separate the problems of Afghanistan from those of surrounding countries, addressing corruption when it inevitably occurs, and numerous other unpalatable compromises.

But that is the work of coalition warfare. The only difference between that and what we are doing now is that we’d be making the compromises with countries that share fewer of our values and more of our interests in Afghanistan.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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