Obama’s Afghanistan

Columns / Dec. 10, 2009 3:35pm EST

Decision is Right—But …

President Obama has chosen a course of action in Afghanistan that neither is sustainable over the long term nor addresses the fundamental causes of anti-American extremism. Nevertheless, he has chosen correctly.

From a national security perspective, stability in Pakistan—with its potentially vulnerable nuclear arsenal—is more important to the U.S. than is achieving a functioning government in Afghanistan, and from the U.S. military´s perspective, Pakistan´s efforts to fight al Qaeda and its Taliban allies are worth more than all of NATO´s non-combatant troops put together. Hence, Mr. Obama´s decision to expand U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and especially in the southern regions along the border with Pakistan signals to Pakistan that the U.S. will be a reliable partner in a common cause.

Aside from these security and military concerns, a number of domestic political considerations also support his decision. First is his credibility as a leader. The President campaigned on a platform that said Iraq was the wrong war and that Afghanistan was the right war; then he asked the smartest minds in the U.S. military to give him their honest assessments of the conditions in Afghanistan and their best recommendations for winning the war there.

To now deny that Afghanistan is the focus of the conflict with al Qaeda would undermine Mr. Obama´s credibility as Commander-in-Chief. Also, to reject the strategy of his most informed advisers before it is even tested would be a slap in the face of our best military leaders, most of whom still hold the confidence of many Americans. He may have painted himself into this corner, but finding himself there, he has no alternative but to live with its consequences—at least for now.

From a risk-avoidance perspective, the President has two other reasons for accepting his generals´ recommendations as well. Should he not expand the war effort and should things go so badly in the next year or two that the Karzai government faces collapse, Mr. Obama would then be confronted with an untenable choice. He could try to belatedly rally public support for what is clearly a lost war, or he would face the charge of being the President who lost the war in Afghanistan. Either option would sink his administration politically.

Finally, and from perhaps the most cynical perspective, accepting General McChrystal´s plan gives the President political cover should there be another major terrorist attack against the U.S. In such a circumstance, if he had not vigorously pursued al Qaeda as recommended, he would have to accept the full responsibility for having failed to protect America. Supporting the general´s plan, therefore, inoculates him against a potential charge of dereliction of duty.

In summary, at this point in time the President´s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is worthy of at least grudging acceptance. I say grudging acceptance because most analysts believe that the major non-military assumption behind the surge—that the government of Hamid Karzai can transform itself within 18 months from being the source of national corruption and dysfunction to a trusted provider of basic security and public services—is flawed, as no government has ever made such a dramatic transition in such a short period of time.

Further, the risk in accepting General McChrystal´s course of action is great. For if the Karzai government does not transform itself, then at the end of 18 months America may well find itself even more deeply mired in Afghanistan than it is today.

The most disappointing aspect of the President´s decision, however, is that in presenting his case for the surge, he missed an opportunity to prepare the American public for a future alternative. The conflict with al Qaeda and its related terrorist organizations continues to expand beyond Afghanistan and is driven by a host of factors, some of which are influenced by past and present American foreign policies.

In focusing his argument narrowly upon Afghanistan, Mr. Obama did not address these broader challenges. Nor did he suggest the need to change some of America´s policies. Nor did he offer any non-military strategy for enhancing international cooperation on intelligence, surveillance, capture, and prosecution of terrorist movements. The greatest risk associated with the President´s decision is, therefore, that the surge strategy will fail without a viable Plan B in place.

It is poor game theory, of course, to communicate to an opponent what your next move or alternative strategy might be. But in matters of war and peace, it takes many months to build support for a major change of direction. We will not have to wait a full 12 to 18 months, therefore, to see if the President is preparing the American people for an exit strategy that will get him out of the corner into which he has so wittingly or unwittingly painted himself and our nation.

Paul Kendall, a resident of Braintree, has traveled widely and lived in South America. He has studied foreign policy at American University in Washington, D.C. and focuses on issues of national security and U.S.-Latin American relations.


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