A Losing Bet in Afghanistan

The trouble with Obama's new strategy


President Obama has outlined his new Afghanistan strategy, and the critics have had a lot to say. Things will be tougher than they were in Iraq, warned one opponent. The American general in charge doesn't understand Afghanistan very well, said another. Afghans won't be ready to take over security for their country for at least five years and will demand U.S. financial help for 15 or 20, predicted a third.

Oops. My mistake. Those forecasts didn't come from people who oppose Obama's decision to expand the war. They came from people who support it—no less than Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and President Hamid Karzai. In this war, even the optimists are wreathed in gloom.

For that matter, the president himself is not exactly the picture of confidence. "Afghanistan is not lost," he felt compelled to insist, while admitting that "for several years it has moved backwards" and reporting that McChrystal found "the security situation is more serious than he anticipated."

Obama's policy is a clever attempt to reconcile the two sides of the debate, one favoring escalation and the other recommending withdrawal. He proposes to do both: ramp up now and start to leave in 18 months. If the surge works, we are led to believe, it will be safe to go. Implied, but unsaid, is that if it fails, there will be no point in staying.

But the administration is firmer on the escalation than it is on the exit. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that come July 2011, only "some small number" of U.S. troops will be brought home. "I don't consider this an exit strategy," he emphasized.

McChrystal takes the commander-in-chief's timetable even less seriously. "I don't believe the July 2011 time frame, militarily, is a major factor in my strategy," he said.

Obama's dual-pronged plan is not crazy in principle, but it looks to be short one prong. When he says we'll escalate now and draw down later, we can believe the first part. Betting on a substantial withdrawal in 2011 is like betting that Tiger Woods will become monogamous. Nothing is impossible, but…

There are more reasons to think the strategy will fail than to believe it will work. The first is that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. American forces arrived in Afghanistan with the advantage of not being the Taliban—whose oppressive policies had alienated the populace. But today, the locals associate us with eight years of disappointment.

It's not easy for a culturally alien outside power to win the support of a people with a long history of resistance to foreign invaders. It's even harder to win that support after we've spent the better part of a decade proving we don't deserve it.

More U.S. troops are supposed to enhance security for ordinary Afghans, as well as facilitating civilian improvements that will win their allegiance. But more U.S. troops also mean more deaths for innocent Afghan bystanders, not to mention a greater daily irritant to nationalist sensibilities.

The people we aim to help, keep in mind, have no powerful reasons to like or trust us. A lot of Americans feel a visceral aversion to our national government—regarding it as incompetent, dishonest, and overly powerful. So imagine how it looks to Afghans who see our soldiers in their streets. It's no great asset that our chief ally is a regime that had to rig elections to stay in office.

Another obstacle is that the biggest threat to our security and the stability of South Asia lies beyond our reach, in Pakistan. It's hard to battle a foe that can find sanctuary just over the border, where we are constrained in pursuing them. And the harder we fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the more likely we are to push them into Pakistan, and the more likely they are to assist Pakistan's own insurgency, which is not exactly helpful to our interests.

Getting out of Afghanistan sooner might have consequences we'd prefer to avoid. But escalation offers only slim hopes of averting those repercussions. If we're likely to fail, we can do it after we sacrifice a lot more lives and money. Or we can do it before.