Obama’s Fateful Choice

Obama’s Fateful Choice

US Afghanistan policy should not be held hostage to the president’s past rhetoric.


President Obama will soon make what could be the defining decision of his presidency. The course he chooses in Afghanistan will tell us a lot about the kind of country we will become during his administration.

Obama has called Afghanistan a war of necessity and fed the notion that it is the “good war,” in contrast to the one in Iraq. But Afghanistan policy should not be a hostage to the president’s past rhetoric. On a matter of such critical importance, the White House needs to look anew at the situation and consider the likely consequences of this decision for national security and for America’s other needs.

The course of the war over the past eight years, along with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, should have led the White House to explore a broader range of options than the ones the president has before him. Neither sending more troops to expand our counterinsurgency nor reverting to a forward-based counterterrorism operation would enhance national security or be in the best interests of Afghanistan. The president should expand the policy review to include alternatives that would allow Washington to disengage militarily and pursue a regional diplomatic initiative to bring about a new power-sharing arrangement, along the lines spelled out by Robert Dreyfuss.

The US experience in Afghanistan makes it clear that this is not a war of necessity. We have learned–or should have learned–that we can keep Americans safe from terrorism even if remnants of the Al Qaeda leadership continue to enjoy relative safe haven in Pakistan or parts of Afghanistan. Indeed, the greater danger today comes from a small and dispersed terrorist network that has at most a tangential connection to the region. American safety therefore depends not on eliminating faraway Al Qaeda safe havens but on common-sense counterterrorism and homeland defense measures: extensive intelligence cooperation, expert police work, border control and the occasional surgical use of special forces to disrupt imminent attacks.

We should also have a better appreciation of Pakistan’s complicated political landscape and how the war in Afghanistan affects it. Clearly, some groups in the Pakistani intelligence service and military tolerate or even encourage the Taliban as a way to thwart US and Indian interests in Afghanistan. But we also know that a civilian Pakistani government and its military will curb the Taliban when they feel themselves threatened or decide it is in Pakistan’s best interest. We should understand that escalating the war only creates more divisions within Pakistan and strengthens the forces there that have supported the Taliban. Thus, the best safeguard for stability is to support the evolution of Pakistan’s democratic government, which for its own reasons rejects extremism.

The course of the Afghan war also suggests that this is no longer the good war that those arguing for more troops believe it is. In eight years we have made little progress in creating a viable state or system of government, building a national army and police or creating an economy less dependent on the drug trade. Contrary to the arguments of some in the administration, it is not for lack of trying. The United States and its NATO partners have had more than 40,000 troops in Afghanistan since 2006 and have spent more than $300 billion on military and civilian operations. We of course should do more to provide development and humanitarian assistance. But it is telling that so far all we have produced is a growing insurgency and a corrupt government that has lost whatever popular support it may have had.

To be sure, a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would bring new suffering for many Afghans, especially women, and many Afghans look to the United States for protection and security. But just as surely, a substantial, determined minority does not see our presence there that way, and that is a prescription for insurgency. Indeed, the more the United States has sought to expand its military reach, the more the insurgency has flared, and the more civilians, including women, have been victims of the violence. Not even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency can mask that in the eyes of many Afghans, we are foreign occupiers with our own imperial designs. Nor can it make up for the many shortcomings of what is seen as the illegitimate and dysfunctional regime of President Hamid Karzai, which has tried to centralize power (and wealth) at the expense of outlying provinces and has stolen the recent election. After immense international pressure, Karzai finally agreed to a runoff with his main competitor. That’s a positive development, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in reforming the corrupt power structure. We should know that turning an illegitimate government into a legitimate one is beyond our capabilities–and that fighting extremists the Afghan government and army won’t fight is a fool’s errand.

Understandably, a majority of Americans have turned against the war. The number will grow as the costs and burdens become more evident. Under the right conditions, the impulse to help Afghans build a better future is commendable, but something is wrong when it becomes so tied up with a flawed military strategy or when it diverts our attention and energy from the serious problems we face here and abroad.

We cannot ignore that we are a nation struggling to recover from a debilitating economic crisis, with ever larger problems and fewer resources to deal with them. We cannot ignore that the crisis has devastated millions of American families who need the government’s help. The ballooning debt is forcing the administration to match every new expenditure with a spending cut. As a practical matter, that means every dollar we spend on the war in Afghanistan will be one less dollar to create jobs or provide health insurance at home, or to solve international problems.

Given these realities, how can a president who promised to renew the nation justify the immense cost that sending yet more troops to Afghanistan would entail? How can he do so on behalf of an Afghan government that is so corrupt and dysfunctional that it does not have the support of its own people? We believe the president should listen to the voices in Congress who are urging him to begin planning a responsible exit strategy.

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