President Barack Obama’s strategy for “breaking the momentum” of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has come under increasing scrutiny after General Stanley McChrystal’s replacement by General David Petraeus and the unauthorized release by WikiLeaks of ninety thousand classified documents about the war, and in light of the steadily mounting number of U.S. deaths.

Many knowledgeable and thoughtful observers, such as Andrew Bacevich and William Pfaff, have called for a dramatic de-escalation of U.S. involvement and the withdrawal of most U.S. forces. They argue that Afghanistan does not present a security threat to the United States, and that we can easily deal with any Islamic terrorists seeking to re-establish a sanctuary there by deploying Special Forces and drones. Worse, they say, the Karzai government and Pakistan, our principal allies in the fight, are corrupt and duplicitous, which means the United States is without the local partners it needs for a successful counterinsurgency effort. In fighting the Taliban, the United States has entangled itself in what is basically a civil war, one only the Afghans can resolve. Critics of Obama’s “surge” argue that after nine years of erratic U.S. engagement in Afghanistan it is time to refocus on the real security threats facing this nation. 

They make a strong case. Americans are rightly weary of the war and skeptical that extending the U.S. presence will do much good. Time is on the side of the Taliban; Afghanistan is their home, and the U.S. will leave eventually. Obama’s decision to send more troops while at the same time announcing a July 2011 date to begin their withdrawal has sown confusion and skepticism, both at home and abroad. Some critics suggest that the deadline is a symptom of Obama’s own ambivalence about the war, and that he was bullied into adopting the surge by factions within the military who found it easy to intimidate or manipulate an inexperienced president. Writing on the New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills relates how he personally warned Obama that the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan would doom his presidency. Afghanistan will be Obama’s Vietnam, Wills predicts.

There is a good deal of history to support Wills’s dire prediction, and the weight of that history can be felt in how the president is losing support for his Afghan policy within his own party in Congress. Still, Obama is not mistaken in thinking that a good deal is at stake in how the United States leaves and what it leaves behind. Clearly, the greatest danger is that the worsening situation in Afghanistan will destabilize an already shaky Pakistan, and that some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of Islamic radicals. This possibility explains Washington’s fitful tolerance of Pakistan’s collaboration with some elements of the Afghanistan Taliban. Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan as a crucial bulwark against India, its most feared rival, and it sees the Taliban as an ally in that fight. Or at least it did. There is evidence that Pakistan now recognizes the threat posed to its own security by the Taliban in Pakistan. This explains the willingness of Pakistan’s army both to confront the Taliban in the country’s western provinces and to turn a blind eye to the increased use of U.S. drones over Pakistani territory. Presumably it is this more robust Pakistani military engagement, combined with the pressure created by the U.S. surge, that gives Obama and his military advisers hope that some elements within the Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table.

In this light, perhaps Obama’s strategy can be best understood as an experiment—and a legitimate one, given the stakes involved. Contrary to the expectations of most observers (including then-Senator Obama and Commonweal), the surge in Iraq did help stabilize a chaotic, seemingly hopeless situation. Although Afghanistan is a very different place and, arguably, a more difficult problem, Obama feels he has an obligation to see whether a similar strategy might work. Most Afghans hate the Taliban and remain grateful for the American presence. After nine years of fighting, however, Obama knows that an open-ended U.S. commitment is neither politically nor morally tenable. Any further commitment must depend on the realistic prospects for success. Those prospects will be evaluated in yet another extensive policy review in December. That review must be as objective as possible. It is crucial that the American people know the criteria the president will use in judging whether progress is being made. If this experiment is not working, the president must say so and present a clear and cogent alternative. If he does not, Afghanistan will indeed become his Vietnam.

August 3, 2010

Related: Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: 
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