Stephen M. Walt

Obama’s Afghan drop-in

I don’t watch much televised news — there’s just not a lot of content per unit of time and I get bored too quickly — but I did happen to catch a report on President Obama’s whirlwind trip to Afghanistan yesterday. (As a sign of my indifference to the major networks, I couldn’t even tell ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t watch much televised news — there’s just not a lot of content per unit of time and I get bored too quickly — but I did happen to catch a report on President Obama’s whirlwind trip to Afghanistan yesterday. (As a sign of my indifference to the major networks, I couldn’t even tell you which channel I was watching). But I did see a film clip of the president giving a speech to the troops at Bagram air base, where he thanked them for their efforts, said the country was grateful, and told the troops "the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail."

As always, Obama looked comfortable and sounded good. And it’s possible that he meant every word of his pep talk. But I kept wondering what he meant by "prevail?" What is his definition of victory? Is it the surrender and capture of Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura, or the military defeat of the Taliban itself? Is victory defined as the establishment of a unified Afghan central government (something that hasn’t existed for decades) in command of native security forces that can take over the battle themselves, with little or no foreign support? If special representative Richard Holbrooke thinks we’ll "know success when we see it," what exactly are we looking for?" 

Here’s how Obama defined the strategy in his remarks:

Our broad mission is clear: We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear: We’re going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We’re going to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. We’re going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people.

And our strategy includes a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban while creating the conditions for greater security and a transition to the Afghans; but also a civilian effort that improves the daily lives of the Afghan people, and combats corruption; and a partnership with Pakistan and its people, because we can’t uproot extremists and advance security and opportunity unless we succeed on both sides of the border. Most of you understand that."

If that’s what the President really thinks, we are going to be there for a long, long time.  So I found myself hoping (perhaps naively) that this was all a bit of blue-smoke-and-mirrors, and that he’s actually planning to follow the same script in Afghanistan that Bush followed in Iraq.  It won’t be identical in every detail, but the basic logic would be similar.  Here’s how it goes:

First, announce an escalation of the U.S. effort (aka a "surge"), but set a rough deadline for it and quietly put new emphasis on "political reconciliation." (Done).  Next, bombard the media with lots of evidence of progress, such as Taliban "strongholds" seized, al Qaeda leaders killed or captured, Taliban leaders arrested in Pakistan, etc., so that people think the surge is working.  (Now underway). Third, arrange a diplomatic settlement that requires the phased withdrawal of U.S./ISAF troops, even if their departure is on a rather lengthy timetable. The Iraqi equivalent was the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in the fall of 2008; in Afghanistan, it would probably entail some sort of negotiation between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and various other warlords (whether by a loya jirga) or some other device (Maybe underway too?). Finally, start removing the "surged" forces more-or-less on schedule-and ahead of the 2012 election cycle-so that you can claim to have avoided the quagmire that critics warned about back in 2009 (Remains to be seen).

I have no idea if this is what Obama or his team are actually planning — or maybe just hoping for — but at this stage it is offers the best chance of avoiding an open-ended commitment there.  Part of the trick is to keep sounding resolute and determined even while you’re (quietly) looking for an exit, and as someone who remains unconvinced that the Afghan campaign is worth the costs, I’ll continue to hope that this is what is really going on.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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