Writing in the Washington Post today, Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor, calls an exit from Afghanistan a “mirage.” He accuses President Obama and his “civilian aides” of “searching desperately for a way out,” and he ridicules the notion of a negotiated deal with the Taliban-led insurgents.
He writes: “The military drawdown appears likely to be accompanied by a new attempt to promote a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a ‘diplomatic surge’ in a February speech in which she seemed to soften previous conditions for talks with the Taliban. The administration is said to be quietly encouraging a Turkish initiative to allow the Taliban to open an office in Turkey, which would provide a clear channel for communications.”
Sounds good, right? Diehl says no. “The idea of a quick political fix is seductive. There’s just one problem: It’s an illusion. Not only is there no chance of striking a workable deal with the Taliban, but the pursuit of one is only likely to make an already difficult political situation in Afghanistan worse.”
To support his view, he cites an encounter he had with Abdullah Abdullah, the man who ran against President Karzai last year in the hotly disputed—well, rigged—election. Abdullah is a fierce opponent of talks with the Taliban, and he argues that the United States ought to stay put in order to create, defend or preserve (take your pick) “democracy” in Afghanistan. But with two-thirds of Americans now having rejected the war, there’s simply no political support for Obama to sustain it.
So the future of Afghanistan comes down to American politics. Obama has two choices. First, he can wind down the war sharply, so that he can run for re-election in 2012 by saying: “When I was elected in 2008, America was fighting two wars. I ended both of them, and America is safe.” That would require, at the very least, a significant drawdown of US forces by 2013, probably by more than half, that is, roughly back to where the United States was when Obama took office. Second, he can maintain a hefty presence in Afghanistan through the 2012 elections, in order to protect himself from Republican charges that he’s “soft on terrorism.” Most likely, Obama will try to split the difference, gradually withdrawing the 30,000 troops he added to the war in December 2009, in the hope that it will be enough to (1) placate his antiwar base among Democrats and independents and (2) neuter criticism from right-wing hawks.
As Diehl writes: “The Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran has reported that Obama’s civilian aides are pushing for a deadline of fall 2012 for the withdrawal of all of the 30,000 troops he sent. Why fall 2012? Even most Afghans realize the date has nothing to do with their country.”
It’s true, sadly, that for Obama it’s all about 2012. Still, the politics of the United States may force Obama to be bolder than he wants to be—especially if, despite Diehl’s naysaying—the diplomatic surge that Clinton talks about pays off, and talks with the Taliban actually make progress by next summer.