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Afghanistan: What Could Work

Hamid Karzai; drawing by John Springs

We would prefer, therefore, to believe that any war in which we engage is a vital threat to our very existence—in which case the odds of victory are irrelevant and any sacrifice is justified. And there must be a defined end. It would be difficult for a president to argue that we should sacrifice lives without winning in order to prevent something worse (although we build dams when we can’t control the flow of water and employ a police force when we can’t end crime).

We would be revolted by someone who tried to calculate how many lives the objectives in Afghanistan were worth (fifty? a thousand?). And these are all healthy intuitions: we would not want to be in a world where lives were treated simply as units, to which we assigned a definite and explicit expendable value in a grand cost-benefit analysis. But these intuitions still reinforce an all-or-nothing approach to foreign policy.

The simple process of naming our past and present strategies already generates and restricts our response. Thus by naming operations in Afghanistan a counterinsurgency, we may feel compelled to deploy one trained counterinsurgent for every fifty members of the population; by labeling our approach “an Afghanistan–Pakistan strategy,” we imply that our actions in Afghanistan are vital to the security of Pakistan; by putting the Taliban in the category of those pursuing a global jihad, we conclude that we cannot negotiate with them; by naming Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven or a failed state, we conclude that failure (or even a light “footprint”) is not an option.

Obama deftly avoided all these words and traps in his speech, perhaps because he has become aware of their extreme implications. There was no talk of victory. His aim was no longer to defeat but to contain the Taliban: to “deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” He explicitly rejected a long “nation-building project.” He talked not of eliminating but of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda. He did not speak of a moral obligation to the Afghan people. He did not specify any necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He asserted that “there’s no imminent threat of the [Afghan] government being overthrown.” He emphasized that “we will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.” He did not draw parallels with the surge in Iraq. And most strikingly of all, whereas he had referred four times in March to insurgency, now he stated that “unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.”

Such moderate analysis disappointed those who wanted a call to arms. The West Point cadets in the audience yawned, stared at the floor, and clapped only halfheartedly. Bush’s surge in Iraq was a troop increase of only 20 percent; Obama’s contributions to Afghanistan since he took office will more than double US troop presence on the ground. Bush spoke at a time of overwhelming public opposition to the war and with one of the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded; but it was Bush, not Obama, who spoke about determination, commitment, victory, and doing whatever it takes. Obama sounded like those he criticized for wanting to “simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through.”

But this moderate tone gains Obama the leverage that Bush lacked. As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai. The worse Afghanistan behaved—the more drugs it grew and terrorists it fostered—the more money it received. If it sorted out its act, it risked being relegated to a minor charitable recipient like Tajikistan. A senior Afghan official warned me this year “to stop referring to us as a humanitarian crisis: we must be the number one terrorist threat in the world, because if we are not we won’t get any money.” By asserting convincingly that Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all and that the US could always ultimately withdraw, Obama escapes this codependent trap and regains some leverage over the Afghan government. In his politer words:

It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

But perhaps even more importantly, defining a more moderate and limited strategy gives him leverage over his own generals. By refusing to endorse or use the language of counterinsurgency in the speech, he escapes their doctrinal logic. By no longer committing the US to defeating the Taliban or state-building, he dramatically reduces the objectives and the costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last. All of this serves to “cap” the troop increases at current levels and provide the justification for beginning to reduce numbers in 2011.

But the brilliance of its moderate arguments cannot overcome that statement about withdrawal. With seven words, “our troops will begin to come home,” he loses leverage over the Taliban, as well as leverage he had gained over Karzai and the generals. It is a cautious, lawyerly statement, expressed again as “[we will] begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” It sets no final exit date or numbers. But the Afghan students who were watching the speech with me ignored these nuances and saw it only as departure.

This may be fatal for Obama’s ambition to “open the door” to the Taliban. The lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that his argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it appeared semi-permanent. As the President asserted, the Taliban are not that strong. They have nothing like the strength or appeal that they had in 1995. They cannot take the capital, let alone recapture the country. There is strong opposition to their presence, particularly in the center and the north of the country. Their only hope is to negotiate. But the Taliban need to acknowledge this. And the only way they will is if they believe that we are not going to allow the Kabul government to collapse.

Afghanistan has been above all a project not of force but of patience. It would take decades before Afghanistan achieved the political cohesion, stability, wealth, government structures, or even basic education levels of Pakistan. A political settlement requires a reasonably strong permanent government. The best argument against the surge, therefore, was never that a US operation without an adequate Afghan government partner would be unable to defeat the Taliban—though it won’t. Nor that the attempt to strengthen the US campaign will intensify resistance, though it may. Nor because such a deployment of over 100,000 troops at a cost of perhaps $100 billion a year would be completely disproportional to the US’s limited strategic interests and moral obligation in Afghanistan—though that too is true.

Instead, Obama should not have requested more troops because doing so intensifies opposition to the war in the US and Europe and accelerates the pace of withdrawal demanded by political pressures at home. To keep domestic consent for a long engagement we need to limit troop numbers and in particular limit our casualties. The surge is a Mephistophelian bargain, in which the President has gained force but lost time.

What can now be done to salvage the administration’s position? Obama has acquired leverage over the generals and some support from the public by making it clear that he will not increase troop strength further. He has gained leverage over Karzai by showing that he has options other than investing in Afghanistan. Now he needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence. This is what the administration began to do in the days following the speech. As National Security Adviser General James Jones said, “That date is a ‘ramp’ rather than a cliff.” And as Hillary Clinton said in her congressional testimony on December 3, their real aim should be to “develop a long-term sustainable relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, primarily our abandonment of that region.”

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.*

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

December 17, 2009

  1. *

    For more on Kashmir, see Pankaj Mishra’s essay in this issue.

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