Stephen M. Walt

Does Obama watch “Frontline?”

I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan (“Obama’s War”) Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn’t fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan ("Obama's War") Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn't fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.

Nonetheless, the presentation didn't offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn't sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they've got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they've been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling "victory" in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool's errand.

I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan (“Obama’s War”) Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn’t fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.

Nonetheless, the presentation didn’t offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn’t sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they’ve got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they’ve been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling “victory” in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool’s errand.

Remember that the main justification for our counterinsurgency campaign is the “safe haven” argument: We must defeat the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary there. A recent presentation by Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations’ Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, suggests that this may not be much of a problem (h/t: John Mueller).

Money quotes (from pp. 17 and 23 of the PDF file):

p. 17: “If I could just talk a little bit about Afghanistan and al-Qaida, the link between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a historic one but not a very strong one, in my view. The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Essentially, it’s a local issue for them. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn’t help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar’s made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don’t want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don’t want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we’re not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.

Well, you might say well, they’d say that anyway; why wouldn’t they – why shouldn’t

they say that? But I don’t think they lose a lot if they don’t say that. They don’t gain a lot by saying it and they don’t lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida…”

p. 23: “I’m not sure that if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that they would necessarily welcome al-Qaida back in great forces, particularly if al-Qaida was going back there to set up camps to train people to mount attacks against other countries. I think the Taliban must calculate that had it not been for 9/11 they’d still be empowering Kabul now today, that no one would have come to kick them out. It was only 9/11 that caused them to lose power. So you know, they lost all that time, and if they get back they perhaps don’t want to make that same mistake again.”

If the Frontline report was mostly accurate and Barrett is mostly correct, there are no good strategic reasons to wage a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It’s no more the “good war” than Iraq was, and Obama is deluding himself if he thinks he can achieve a meaningful victory there.

Postscript: If Obama wants a more promising strategy — and Lord knows he should — he should take a look at Robert Pape’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. Readers here know that I’m in favor of the “offshore balancing” strategy that Pape outlines, and not just in Afghanistan. I believe we will eventually head in that directon, but as Winston Churchill once noted about America, only after “trying all the alternatives.”

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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