Friday, October 30, 2009


If Iraq is the war that we probably shouldn't have started but had to win, Afghanistan is the war that we had to start but may not have to win.

Iraq is the most strategic location on the planet. It sits atop a lake of oil. Parts of that lake extend into countries less than friendly to the US. All of those countries can be influenced by the US projecting power into Iraq. Iraq's population is well-educated and dynamic, making it an ideal laboratory for experimenting with ways of liberalizing tribal autocracies. Finally, Iraq is the crossroads of the Middle East. If you control Iraq, you are the final arbiter of what nations get to project power where.

Afghanistan, as I have said before, is a pile of rocks. It's landlocked, with no natural resources. Its population is tribal and ignorant. It is a crossroads to nowhere. However, there are three strategic advantages to winning the war in Afghanistan:
  1. It will stabilize Pakistan, a large country with nuclear weapons. Stabilization of Pakistan will be a great boon to India, which will almost certainly be the US's principal counterweight to China in South and East Asia.
  2. It will complete the encirclement of Iran, which will act as a deterrent to whatever hegemonic ambitions that cesspool of a government might have.
  3. Last but far from least, a victory in Afghanistan will prove that the US isn't utterly feckless. When we invade somewhere and tell the population that it will be better off because of our invasion, we'd better mean what we say.
Obama made a big deal about Afghanistan. It was as obvious then as it is now that his arguments were utterly craven, made only for political effect, so he could pander to the anti-Iraq crowd while still appearing to be sufficiently tough. Now that he has to govern, he has discovered that his rhetoric has boxed him into a corner.

So he's left with two unpalatable options. He can mumble "never mind" and hope that his credibility isn't permanently damaged. Or he can see the war through to its long, messy conclusion.

Ultimately, though, I think that strategic objective #3 above is the real reason we have to stick this out: We said we would make things better, and the rest of the world has to believe what we say. That means that Obama is going to have to swallow hard and do something contrary to every political instinct the man ever acquired.

Will he do it? David Brooks frames the issue quite well:

I’ve called around to several of the smartest military experts I know to get their views on these controversies. I called retired officers, analysts who have written books about counterinsurgency warfare, people who have spent years in Afghanistan. I tried to get them to talk about the strategic choices facing the president. To my surprise, I found them largely uninterested.

Most of them have no doubt that the president is conducting an intelligent policy review. They have no doubt that he will come up with some plausible troop level.

They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.

But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

We've heard a lot of discussion about push-button counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, where we stand off and drop Hellfire missiles from Predators. Some of that discussion has centered on the morality of a strategy that will kill more civilians than a counter-insurgency strategy might. That discussion misses the point. If we stand off and leave the Afghan people to the mercy of the Taliban, the number of people killed air strikes will be the least of their worries.

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