Stuck in Afghanistan

What happened to Obama's Afghan strategy?


There is good news about Afghanistan.

No, really. It comes from Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist and author of the book The Promise: President Obama, Year One. He thinks the president is firmly resolved to end our involvement there. Based on his sources inside the administration, he says one thing is certain: "We ain't stayin' long."

Anyone who thinks nine years of stalemate is enough would like to believe Alter, whose reporting skills are not in doubt. But it may be more prudent to believe Gen. David Petraeus.

Reminded of Obama's commitment to begin withdrawing a year from now, the new commander in Afghanistan carved out four lanes of wiggle room. "There will be an assessment at the end of this year after which undoubtedly we'll make certain tweaks, refinements, perhaps some significant changes," he told senators.

So we may be leaving even sooner than planned? Um, no. "We'll need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come," he said.

That's a recurring theme. Obama himself recently ridiculed the "obsession around this whole issue of when do we leave." The plan for next summer, he said, is not to leave but only to "begin a process of transition."

The Rockies may crumble and Gibraltar may tumble in the time it takes to complete a "process of transition." But Alter says his reporting gives him confidence "a significant withdrawal will begin within, at the most, 18 months to two years."

Not staying long? That would put off Obama's original drawdown by as much as a year. If Obama is willing to push back his deadline by a year, why not two years? Or five?

Harvard international relations scholar Stephen Walt notes that Obama has had three chances to begin our extrication—"right after his election, then following his strategic review in the fall of 2009, and most recently with the McChrystal firing." But he passed them up. "In each case," Walt told me, "he's chosen either to deepen U.S. involvement or he's publicly committed to 'staying the course.'"

It's possible that Obama will break that pattern next summer, just as it's possible that Adam Sandler will go for his doctorate. But there is no reason to bet on it.

He came into office opposed to the Iraq war, unlike the Afghanistan war—and yet his schedule for withdrawal is no different from what President Bush planned. Why should anyone expect him to show more nerve in Afghanistan?

The political incentives are pushing him to go along with extending our presence because no president wants to be blamed for losing a war (see: Iraq, Vietnam). It's politically safer to muddle along hoping for something that can be portrayed as success than to admit failure.

To think Obama will take the risk of a major withdrawal as he's running for re-election assumes him to have more backbone on national security matters than he has yet demonstrated.

Time after time, forced to choose between sticking to his commitments and appeasing Republicans, he has opted for the latter—keeping Guantanamo open, giving up the idea of trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, abandoning his campaign pledge to leave Iraq in 16 months.

The only thing that would spur Obama to start a pullout would be major progress in Afghanistan, which is about as likely as a Hard Rock Cafe in Kandahar. June was the most lethal month for American and NATO troops in the entire war, and this may just be the beginning.

A UN report says the number of roadside bombings by our enemies nearly doubled in the first three months of this year. So did the number of "complex suicide attacks."

Meanwhile, our allies are failing us. Corruption has proliferated, and President Hamid Karzai has not captured the hearts of his countrymen since winning a rigged election last year.

The Afghan army suffers from ethnic divisions, weak leadership, and an epidemic of desertion. The national police are plagued by illiteracy as well as graft. These developments do not spell "victory."

Getting out of Afghanistan would be easy for Obama if things were to go well. But to get out when things are going badly would let Republicans blame him and his party ever after for what happens next. Democrats learned that lesson from Vietnam.

In the end, Obama is likely to follow a well-known rule of American politics: Fighting a futile war is excusable. Ending one is not.