President Barack Obama’s speech last week at West Point, during which he announced his strategy for Afghanistan – including the deployment of 30,000 additional troops – produced surprising unanimity among the political left and right: No one was happy.
The president’s supporters on the left have long since wanted to see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought to an end. Likewise, many on the right, including “paleoconservatives” like Washington Post columnist George Will, have tired of the nation-building missions of the Bush-Cheney neoconservatives, and believe that Afghanistan should be dealt with via intelligence operations, Special Forces, and drone strikes. (There is no word from Will about what to do about the increased civilian casualties caused by those drones.)
Historians and military experts have long since judged the invasion and occupation of Iraq to be the biggest strategic blunder by an American president, perhaps in U.S. history, but at least since Vietnam. Obama has pledged to bring that war to a swift but careful end. Afghanistan is a more complicated case. The U.S. invaded that country in 2001 to go after al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, the terrorists who planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., and to defeat Mullah Omar and the Taliban, the Afghan regime that harbored, and perhaps still harbors, al-Qaeda.
Eight years later, that mission has not been accomplished. The Bush administration under-resourced the Afghan war as it set its sights on Iraq, and allowed Bin Laden to escape. Years of requests for additional troops to the Afghan theater were denied, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has served the Bush and Obama administrations. An assessment this year by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, stated bluntly that the war is going badly, and could well be lost as Taliban elements step up their attacks against U.S. forces and occupy more of the country.
Obama’s strategy sets more modest goals than the dreamy nation-building proposed by Bush, or the broad population support called for by McChrystal. Obama made it clear he understands that the historically lawless country will not become Norway. And no serious person believes that the Taliban, which is indigenous to the country and interwoven through the tribes of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority, will ever be eradicated.
Nor can we count on Afghans to turn en masse against the Taliban, the way Iraqi Sunnis eventually turned on the foreign fighters of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (a group that sprang up in Iraq as a result of our invasion.) Instead, Obama has set a more modest goal of securing Afghanistan’s major population centers, clearing those areas of al-Qaeda, and limiting the ability of the Taliban to operate, or to allow al-Qaeda to operate, until enough Afghan military and police forces can be trained to protect their own country.
They will be handed that responsibility starting in 18 months, at which time, if all goes well, our troops can begin to come home.
The strategy is imperfect because Afghanistan is imperfect. Its government, under Hamid Karzai, is corrupt, and barely clinging to legitimacy. The country is historically resistant to foreigners, and has been dubbed the “graveyard of empires” for having expelled the British Empire and the Soviet Union. There will be no “conquering” Afghanistan. But given the situation he received from the Bush administration, it’s hard to see how Obama has much choice but to move forward.
If we abruptly quit Afghanistan, the Taliban contagion that’s already spread across the narrow border could topple nuclear-armed Pakistan. And it’s probably not lost on the administration that 100,000 American troops next door would not be a bad message to send Iran. “Surging” 30,000 more U.S., and 7,000 additional NATO troops in Afghanistan, with a time limit, might be the only way to focus the mind of the Karzai government, letting the Afghans know that we will help and protect them, but not forever, and letting al-Qaeda know that our troops understand deadlines too, and they don’t intend to leave Afghanistan with al-Qaeda intact.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.