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Responsibility, Means and Interests

Let me share some quick reactions to the president’s Afghanistan speech as an admittedly non-military and non-foreign policy expert. I will try to stick closely to the political implications and possible public response to the policy announcement as Obama explained it from West Point tonight. I’ll focus on a key, six-paragraph section at the end of the middle third of the speech, breaking it up into component parts:

These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.

It seems that in the choice between tilting either toward counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, as with most decisions Obama makes, the president wants to split it down the middle: doing some of both, with a civilian surge–akin, if you will, to a civil investiture to counter the counter-insurgency (presuming that will work), packaged with ramped up cooperation with Pakistan to work the areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the terrorist elements are hunkered down.

My main wonder here is how seriously Americans perceive the threat of a regrown terror network, or more to the point how much the investments and knotty implications of working with the Pakistanis will actually yield in terms of snuffing out terror networks in any once-and-forever way.

I recognize that there are a range of concerns about our approach. So let me briefly address a few of the prominent arguments that I have heard, and which I take very seriously.

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now – and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance – would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.

Well, if this is the part of the speech to push back on the left wing elements in his party, I’m not too convinced. Saying something is not Vietnam is a soft case. Of course it’s not. And the size and breadth of a coalition does not make or justify a strategy. Indeed, fighting in coalitions, as my colleague Patty Weitsman argues, often is more costly and complicated than its worth. I wonder, too, how many Americans feel that our Afghanistan investment looks even remotely like a proportional burden among allies.

Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state, but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. But this would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through, and permit a slow deterioration of conditions there. It would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan Security Forces and give them the space to take over.

I think this is inarguable. What we’re doing now is a waste–it’s not working. We either need to do more or do less, or more of some things and less of others, or just something different.

Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort – one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

Immediately after the speech, you had Sen. John McCain and the Council of Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass saying that setting a timeline or deadline is dangerous business. They have a point, Haass specifically arguing that Obama is betting that ramping up now will cost more in troops and money in the short term but save in the long term. What you have here, in both policy and political gambits, is the equivalent “surge” for Obama in Afghanistan to what Bush did with his surge in Iraq. I suppose violence is down in Iraq post-surge, but the long-term situation there isn’t going to be any better as a result, is it? And although Obama’s less-in-Iraq-means-more-for-Afghanistan argument is better than a more-in-both-countries further over-extension of our military and treasury, scaling back in Iraq is not in by itself a rationale for ramping up in Afghanistan. Failure at a lower cost-per-fatality, cost-per-casualty, cost-per-dollar-spent investment is still a bad return. What matters is whether this counterinsurgency strategy really can work. I’m still not sure it will, and given that the president’s Afghan approval numbers are lower than his overall approval numbers, I wonder how many Americans believe it will work.

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests.

Well, now. We are already living beyond on means in terms of spending outside our borders, not to mention what we’re spending back home. Maybe Obama should have left “means” out of the equation, especially after making the politically-astute admission elsewhere in the speech that Americans are very likely thinking about how every dollar sent overseas is one less dollar that could be spent here. Responsibility? Well, we started in over there, so hard to dispute that. But “interests,” well, that’s the real question.

I’m not trying to get down on the president. He inherited this mess, one of many. He’s right that Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the more justified war. He’s right about the foolishly asymmetrical investments made in the past and to this day in Iraq relative to Afghanistan. And he’s right that what we’re doing now is just a long dead end and thus waste of resources. I guess I have to trust him and his military advisers when they tell us that a buffed-up counterinsurgency policy, coupled with a new pact with the Pakistanis, is actually going to work.

Like the punch line to the parable about the boy and the donkey that Gust Avrakatos, portrayed by Philip Seymor Hoffman in the movie version of Charlie Wilson’s War, used to invoke, “We’ll see.”