How will the war in Afghanistan end?
This isn’t a trick question. The answer is simple: the war will end when President Obama signs an order ending it; that is, when the president tells his commanders: "It’s over." Opponents of the war — including left-wing antiwar activists, liberal progressives, centrists, "realists," and conservative libertarians — will have to unite to pressure, cajole, persuade, and convince Obama to issue that order.
Fortunately, in his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama provided the war’s opponents with a tactical wedge to use in driving their point home: the president’s announcement that beginning in July 2011 — just eighteen months from now — US forces in Afghanistan will start to draw down.
Despite his decision to add 30,000 more US troops, whose deployment won’t even be complete until sometime late this year, the president has declared that not only will the United States not send additional forces to the war, beyond the circa 100,000 that is the current ceiling, but that in less than a year and a half, US forces will start to decline. The declaration of July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal — call it a "transition" to Afghan forces, if you like — is a statement that has to be emphasized repeatedly by opponents of the war, played, and replayed, and replayed until the media, the public, Congress, have it memorized. It has to be set in stone.
Of course, the deadline that the president set is a fuzzy one. Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, and the military have all tried to make it even fuzzier, by stating that it is "conditions-based," that is, that the number of troops who leave, and the pace of that withdrawal, will depend on conditions on the ground, especially the readiness of the Afghan security forces. To be sure, some of that — especially their congressional testimony in December — was couched in a way designed to mollify hawks, right-wingers, and neoconservatives in Congress, especially in the Republican party, who liked the escalation of the war but who sharply criticized the July 2011 date. The fact still stands: according to the president, the US will start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in 18 months.
That provides the war’s opponents with a tactical wedge.
Here’s what that means: Let’s hold Obama to his word. If indeed he intends to start drawing down forces by then, what steps is he taking to make sure it happens? Is he demanding that his diplomats and military officers start talks with the Taliban and its allies? Is he launching a regional diplomatic effort with Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia — along with Russia, China, and the European Union — to seek an Afghan settlement? What are the benchmarks that have to be met between now and July, 2011? Are they being met? When the United States starts to draw down its forces, what kind of security force will remain? Will it include international peace-keepers? What kind of Afghan government will be in place in July 2011 and how will that government accommodate the ethnic and sectarian conflict, especially among disaffected Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s south and east, to end the civil war?
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All of these questions, and many more, are fit subjects for hearings by various committees in Congress, studies by the GAO and the Congressional Research Service, investigative journalism, reports by human rights groups and organizations such as the International Crisis Group, and studies by various thinktanks. Collectively, a crescendo of such reports, studies, and advocacy pieces will say to Obama: "OK, you told us that we’ll start leaving in 18 months. Tell us what your plan is to make sure it’s a real exit strategy."
The idea of forcing a president to announce an exit strategy isn’t new. During the ugliest moments of the war in Iraq, many opponents of the war inside and outside of Congress — including then Senator Hillary Clinton — tried to compel the Pentagon to reveal its plans for an exit. Various analysts, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the antiwar movement, put pressure on President Bush to describe his plans for an exit. At that time, both the White House and the Defense Department refused, and the Republicans denounced calls for an exit strategy ("cut and run"). This time, the president himself has, in effect, set a timetable for starting a pullout, and it’s not that far away.
The goal should be to end the war.
If the goal is building a movement, rather than ending the war — that is, if the goal is to use the war as a teachable moment, to build the strength of the antiwar movement, to reform the Democratic party or take it over, to establish a viable third party as a "party of the left," and so on, fine. But that’s not going to end the war. Even if any of those goals are achievable, they’ll take a decade or more, and I’m not holding my breath. In any case, the war will be over by then. Building those movements is critically important, but tactically the effort has to focus on how to guarantee that President Obama shapes an order, this year, to end the war. (An interim deadline is December, 2010, when the White House will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the war.)
If the goal is adding a few more left-liberal and progressive members of Congress in 2010, Donna Edwards-style, or even the odd socialist here or there, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, well and good. But that’s not going to end the war. A few dozen, or even a hundred or so true progressives in the House can’t do much by themselves, say, in defunding the war. (Case in point, the failed efforts by progressives to put an end to the war in Iraq after the Democratic takeover of Congress in November, 2006.) However you count them at present, there are several score already, and we all know how effective they are. (Zilch.) By all means, it’s important to support antiwar candidates in congressional races. But that’s not going to end the war.
If one believes that the situation is so dire that the Taliban et al. will gain enough momentum to force a US retreat, Saigon-rooftop style, then the war will end itself. In fact, that’s not going to happen. The Taliban isn’t going to seize Kabul, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Taliban can win a war of attition by killing US and NATO troops, though there’s no doubt that US and NATO casualties in 2010 will be significantly higher than 2009, which already set a record for the nine-year war. Opponents of the war in Afghanistan should remember their dire warnings in January 2007 that President Bush’s "surge" of forces in Iraq would lead to disaster, that the president was sending tens of thousands of additional troops into a hopeless Iraqi civil war that would grind them up. The war in Afghanistan is ugly, but if the United States wants to stay in Afghanistan at full strength for two years, or five, or ten, it can do so, as long as the political will in Washington remains and as long as the Pentagon can maintain US forces at the ready.
So the fact remains: the only way the war will end is if and when President Obama gives the order. He’s the only president we have, and he’ll likely be in office until January, 2017. If the war ends before then, it will be because Obama ends it.
How do we get from here to there? It can’t be done by playing the "left" game. The left, and the peace movement, simply isn’t strong enough — and it won’t be strong enough in the near future, certainly not before 2017. True, the president’s war in Afghanistan has alienated and angered many people who voted for him, and they’re ripe for education and recruitment into the ranks of a reinvigorated antiwar movement. But ending the war means creating a coalition that includes the left, liberals, centrists, realists, oddball libertarians like the Pauls, grouchy establishment types such as Leslie Gelb, and so on, all with the idea that each component has a job to do, namely, using their influence on the White House to make sure that they get the message that the war has to end.
That message, in turn, has a number of important sub-messages included within it: that the war is too expensive, that it undermines economic recovery, that it causes civilian casualties, that COIN rarely if ever works, that the Afghan government is corrupt and unreliable, that a Pakistan-Taliban alliance is covertly operating against the US, and so on. There isn’t one message that works. It takes a village of messages, and an army of messengers.
Personally, I believe that during the months-long Afghan review last fall, Obama heard some candid advice about the unwinnability of the war, in all its multiplicity. Those voices, and those opinions, need to be amplified. Again, if you want the war to actually end, as opposed to clamoring for it to end, it will be Obama who ends it.
A coda on Iraq: for all the near-genocidal ugliness of that criminal war, it didn’t end because the Democrats demanded that it end. (In fact, the war in Iraq isn’t really over. The United States still has 120,000 troops there, and the political situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse in advance of the March 7, 2010, elections.) But the war did calm down, and violence decreased, late in 2007. Why? There are many reasons. The neocons were ousted from the Bush administration by 2005, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was fired, and a more realist group replaced them; the 2006-2007 civil war eased after the Sunni Awakening emerged and Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a ceasefire; Iran (which had been supporting the most violent Shiite groups) told its allies to stand down; and the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki negotiated a withdrawal pact with Bush. The Iraqi drawdown plan that resulted (to about 50,000 by August, 2010, and a complete pullout by end of 2011) was a Bush-Maliki agreement facilitated by the fact that the Sunni insurgency and the Sadrists seemed under control. At best, it’s a shaky accord, and Iraq may very well explode later this year into a new round of political warfare pitting Arabs v. Kurds, religious Shiites v. secular Arabs, and so on. It’s wrong to be sanguine about it. But at least the level of killing is down, US troops are packing their bags, and Iraq’s leaders are happily orbiting Tehran and making oil deals with Russia and China.
I suggest that the war in Afghanistan will "end" in similar fashion, inconclusively. It won’t be pretty. But it won’t be as ugly as what we have now.