Yesterday afternoon at the Brookings Institution, four analysts portrayed a bleak and terrifying vision of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan in the wake of the presidential election. All four were hawkish, reflecting a growing consensus in the Washington establishment that the Afghanistan war is only just beginning.
Their conclusions: (1) A significant escalation of the war will be necessary to avoid utter defeat. (2) Even if tens of thousands of troops are added to the US occupation, it won’t be possible to determine if the US/NATO effort is succeeding until eighteen months later. (3) Even if the United States turns the tide in Afghanistan, no significant drawdown of US forces will take place until five years have passed.
The experts at the panel were Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran and adviser to four presidents, who chaired President Obama’s Afghan task force; Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert and adviser to General David Petraeus; Tony Cordesman, a conservative military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Kim Kagan, head of the Institute for the Study of War.
Not a single panelist questioned the goals, purpose or objectives of the Afghan war. Not one said anything about a political solution to the war, about negotiations, or about diplomacy. Not one questioned the viability of an open-ended commitment to the war. And none of them had any doubts about the strategic necessity of defeating the Taliban and its allies. Although the growing political opposition to the war was referenced in passing — more than half of Americans say the the war isn’t worth fighting, and liberal-left members of Congress are beginning to raise objections — the panel seemed to believe that President Obama can and must ignore politics and push to expand the war when General McChrystal, as expected, recommends an increase in the the level of US forces once again. O’Hanlon, a well-connected, ultra-hawkish Democrat who backed the war in Iraq, said that the chances that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will lead congressional opposition to the war in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 are zero. “Congress will not pull the rug out from under Barack Obama, before the mid-term elections,” he asserted, calling the very idea “unthinkable” and “political suicide.”
O’Hanlon, who had just returned from Afghanistan, acknowledged that McChrystal is “fully aware that, right now, America is not winning this war.” But he gently scolded Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, for saying that the war is “deteriorating.” If Mullen goes around saying that in public, even after the addition of 21,000 US troops in 2009, he makes it harder to convince Americans that the war is winnable. O’Hanlon strongly favors adding yet more troops, but he didn’t provide numbers on how many forces the US will need ultimately. If the United States can turn things around, “In four to five years we will be able to substantially downsize.”