Afghanistan Expectations

Posted Dec. 02, 2009, at 5:04 p.m.

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night outlining his long-considered new strategy for Afghanistan was compelling in its logic. Yet the plan, deploying 30,000 additional troops by next summer and then beginning a complete withdrawal by the summer of 2011, is a bitter pill for most Americans to swallow. A Gallup Poll showed just 35 percent support for the plan.

Essential components will be panned by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The GOP doesn’t like the strict timetable for withdrawal, and many Democrats see the troop surge as reminiscent of the Vietnam War, in which an escalating troop commitment backing a corrupt government resulted in little change in what was essentially a civil war.

The president made his case, but the counterarguments also are strong.

First, his case. The 2001 terrorist attacks and earlier violence against Americans sprang from Afghanistan, so it made sense to respond by invading to root out al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Eight years later, after an incredibly costly and largely unnecessary side trip to Iraq, the president is faced with a “mission unaccomplished” in Afghanistan. While the Bush administration devoted military resources to Iraq, including more troops, private security officers and contractors, the Taliban regained ground in Afghanistan. Worse, the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the people was failing; each time a bomb killed civilians or destroyed a village, the U.S. was blamed, whether it was responsible or not.

So, if the original goal of denying al-Qaida a place to perch is still important to U.S. national security, a new push is needed.

But unlike Iraq, many parts of Afghanistan resist reconstruction because they remain remote and ungoverned. And unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not have a history as a unified nation; the only time Afghanistan unifies is when it fights an outsider, as it did the Soviets in the 1980s. President Hamid Karzai has not shown a desire to rule all the corners of the country, so measuring U.S. success should not be based on seeing a stable, functioning nation state.

The president did not talk about diplomacy Tuesday night. Though that element of foreign policy may not play well in front of West Point cadets, it must be part of the plan. The Taliban, and even al-Qaida, may be less rigid organizations than might seem. Their members may have less loyalty to the organizations than they do to their tribe, faith and region. If the U.S. is to succeed, it must persuade Afghans that another way of life is better. Bringing the Taliban to the table for talks about what its core issues are should be part of the strategy.

In the end, the most important question policymakers must ask is: What measure of success are we willing to accept? It is unlikely that in 2011 — or in 2021 for that matter — Afghanistan will be a unified, Taliban- and al-Qaida-free nation. So to what degree must al-Qaida be weakened in order to declare victory? Expectations must be lowered to meet America’s military and financial capabilities.

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