Foreign Policy

A Losing Bet in Afghanistan

The trouble with Obama's new strategy

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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.

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  1. We’ll get out of Afghanistan when Obama feels we have no more meddling to do, Which is never.

  2. On the one hand I can see the point in the argument that if we pull out people that hate us will us that area to stage attacks on us.

    But I also think that argument has a terrible slippery slope. In theory any failed state could offer that to our enemies. Do we have to prop up Somalia, Ethiopa, and every other nation that is being destablized? And a bigger question is can we prop a nation like that?

  3. About this “failed state” concept…who ever said these states were trying to succeed?

    If your goal is to create society based on ignorance, violence, poverty, and madness, then most third world states are a dynamic success. And considering how many such states achieve that status, why would anyone assume they’re going for anything else?

    That’s why we’re losing in Afghanistan and Iraq – what we want for them is not what they want, and what they want, no one here could reasonably imagine.

    1. I don’t think you can say we are losing in Iraq. Iraq is pretty much over for the most part. We are pulling equipment out every day. They are mostly taken over for their own security, for better or worse. Iraq wants to succeed. It is an education country, unlike Afghanistan.

      The problem with the Afghan mission is we are try to help them succeed when the country doesn’t want to. When it’s local vs foreigners, the locals win in the long run. Unless Aghanistan becomes interested in being a 20th (19th? 18th? 17th? 16th?) century society, a nation building plan will not work, execpt maybe in Kabul.

  4. I was thinking of places that were virtually state-less, and hence unable to control any terrorist groups that might want to 1. target us and 2. set up camp in that area.

  5. What’s wrong with terrorists having a “safe haven?” Surely it would be easier to keep an eye on them. Maybe offer them a fireworks show from time to time. Terrorists need homes too. No reasonable human being is under the illusion that we can hope and change Afghanistan. We can’t expect to save Afghans from, well, themselves. We could offer them some public housing in Cuba, but we are shutting that down.

    Tiger and Obama are both victims. Tiger was forced into marriage by his sponsors and Obama forced into office by the electorate.

  6. “””We can’t expect to save Afghans from, well, themselves.””

    Go back and find a military mission that wasn’t saving people from themselves. WWI, WWII? Most the time we are trying to save citizens that believe X versus citizens that believe Y. X and Y being different types of governing philosophy.

    1. You’re right. If we can get the elite Democratic Afghans in the north to reconcile their governing philosophy with the illiterate Republican Afghans in the south, we may have something.

      Dude, it’s hard enough to get Americans to embrace freedom, let alone Afghans. Mr. Dahmer, I know you like to eat little Filipino boys, but you’re gonna have to change your diet up a bit.

      The best way to gain the support of the Afghans is to quit destroying their livelihoods and start buying up their poppy plants. Win, win. Remove terror revenue and seed the Afghans with a little hope and change. Or, send Bill Bennet over there to explain our drug policy. Drugs bad.

  7. Actually, it’s very much in our interest to push the Taliban into Pakistan. The more trouble they cause in Pakistan, the more the Pakistani military will take the Taliban threat seriously and start taking over the NWFP.

  8. See, I understand these arguments and I think they are very valid, I lean towards leaving. The problem is that nobody can know what the ultimate cost of leaving will be. What will us leaving mean for the lives of Afghani women and civilians in Pakistan, etc. The point is the US committed to this fight, unlike Iraq the country was bipartisan on this war. To me as it stands the country stands to lose more to simply leave Afghanistan now then fight the enemy where they lay.

  9. “The people we aim to help, keep in mind, have no powerful reasons to like or trust us. ”
    Then just tell them we’ll be gone in 18 months leaving them alone to deal with murderers who bear grudges for what they did on our behalf. At least that’s the logic Obama seems to subscribe to.

  10. listen fools-America’s self inflected 911 attacks were NOT planned or accomplished by some rag tag arabs in the far east. Israel, Brits, USA are the world’s terrorists.Stop kidding yourselves. 3 high rise concrete steel towers don’t fall to the ground and turn into dust in less than 8 seconds. Get the B.S. without massive explosives–just fires. Fools abound in USA :^/

    1. “Fools abound in USA”

      So, apparently, do conspiracy theorists.

  11. The US & Britain wanted to seize or contract Russia after USSR dissolve. Pipelines became more important later as Saudi reserves faded. The Chinese opening trans-Eastern pipeline & winning (along with Russia & EU), a large share in yesterday’s Iraq oil auction announce the failure of that policy. Central Asia is the Afgan gov-development model, not US concept impositions.

  12. These devices are useful as signals that the president is about to mislead us.
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  13. we can secure the nation and waste billions of taxpayer dollars. Actually, that sounds about right.
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  16. a large share in yesterday’s Iraq oil auction announce the failure of that policy. Central Asia is the Afgan gov-development model, not US concept impositions. i agree with you
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  17. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight.

  18. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books.

  19. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  20. Go back home is the best.

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