The only unpredictable element of President Obama’s Afghan decision is what its outcome will be. That’s a rather large and important element, but while relatively small numbers of people – in the national security apparatus, in the military, in the diplomatic corps., among academic specialists, and among the journalists who have been long-term and regularly on the ground – really know what they’re talking about, so many more are full of cocksure opinion, and it is all so predictable.
I do Obama a disservice by including him among the predictable – I do it only because, he did, of course, say all throughout the presidential campaign that he would make this choice, and those on the left who are shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on at Rick’s Place cast themselves as doubly foolish by saying so. Yet Obama also had the right hard at work emasculating him because he actually spent a few months – after and amid the 96 months that had already been frittered away since the very quick and handy toppling of the Taliban – conducting what we know was a very comprehensive and thorough review of a fearfully complex situation. Both the hard left and the hard right thought there was nothing to think about: all out now, they cry, or all in to kingdom come. Mothers, trust not your children and nations to such thinkers as these.
Concerns and complaints from the right actually validated the good so many think of Obama, that he is, for all his inexperience, a considered thinker. Despite his clear position on Afghanistan throughout the campaign, conservatives feared that he was actually reconsidering – after more than just three months in office (the period of his first troop increase) using his deeper understanding of events and circumstances to reassess the way forward. How pleased we should all be to see raised the instrument of ratiocination from his predecessor’s gut. Conservatives had, of course, transparently, to cast a profound period of review as dithering and cowardly wavering before the dovish elements of the Democratic Party.
Conservatives cannot see the reality of Obama – that he is not the simple stereotype they have made of liberals (Dennis Kucinich, say) – and many liberals cannot see the any other geopolitical location for the Vietnam cataract they have in their eyes. Far too many on both sides have become frozen, over a forty year period, into postures regarding the exercise of power that have atrophied to caricature. Such conservatives never encounter a danger or obstacle that doesn’t call – rather than any exercise of wily statecraft and strategic policy – for a use of force that will demonstrate resolve, a commitment to democracy, and a general sense of foreign policy manhood. Even to pause and actually think a while after eight years renders one a cross between Hamlet and female genitalia. They don’t do nuance.
Several generations of liberals now, in contrast, have struck in their minds a different imprint of courage: the über-serious, self-affirming dissent from the use of force. No matter the continent, the decade, the terrain, the history, or the adversary, it is always Vietnam, and proponents of military action are getting it tragically, disgracefully wrong. Were it not for super-power democracies bullishly pursing misguided notions of their own interests, the world would live long and prosper.
This time, the conservatives get to be (with some surprise) mostly happy. They’re kvetching a bit about the soft timeline and the failure to grant General McCrystal de facto commander-in-chief status (wouldn’t MacArthur have rolled over that) , but the ditherer actually hunkered down, stood tall, stepped up to the plate, and took his best shot at a goal line stand. Even Bill Kristol is thinks it the right decision well-enough made. (Now I’m really worried: he’s got some track record, that one.) The Kuciniches are lamenting their lament, and some even mourn. (Oh, Barack, we hardly knew ye.)
Fairly typical of the strong assents and dissents is the inability to recognize – certainly to acknowledge – the extraordinary complexities of the AfPac/Islamic terrorist problem and thus the legitimate points to be made on the other side. I wrote about this in Afghanistan: Reading the Evidence. Just as one example, dismissive opponents of any continued effort in Afghanistan will ask what is to prevent Bin Laden & Co. from removing to Somalia or Yemen, while somehow ignoring that over eight years of rather extraordinary military pressure – when they might have been most likely to make such a move – they have not, in fact, done so. Where would you prefer to hide out from an air force of drones – the plains of Somalia, the desert of Yemen, or the tributaries of the Khyber Pass? And no theoretical refuge offers the potential prize of Pakistan.
Still, a Beltway bloviator like Chris Mathews will give his regular guests – who must be hooked on the exposure and the appearance fees – microseconds to respond to what Obama took months to reconsider: “If Al Qaida is in Pakistan, why are we fighting a war in Afghanistan? I don’t get.”
True to form, and not easily impressed by Obama’s flicking his thumb at his nose, Charles Krauthammer – the man who flies in formation with actual hawks – found Obama’s resolve to ring hollow. It’s the deadline thing. K thinks it a sop to the Democratic left wing that undermines the whole enterprise. You know what? Maybe so. But also maybe it let’s any number of parties know that results are expected. Only six months after Pearl Harbor the U.S. defeated the Japanese Navy at Midway and took the strategic initiative in the Pacific War. Eighteen months is time to see some ground results of new tactics, form new alliances with Pashtun tribal leaders, and siphon off the Taliban grunts with money and opportunity. If it appears to be working, that “conditions-on-the-ground” withdrawal date will move and complaint will be minor and muted. If not, we will not have committed ourselves to eternal pursuit of the ghosts of Alexander, Elphinstone, and Gromov.
What Obama did not specifically address in his speech, and what I’ll be seeking to learn, is the nature of any revised campaign to be waged against Al Qaida in Pakistan. That is the essential issue, along with actively working to prevent further Taliban or other terrorist destabilization of Pakistan. The strategic significance of Afghanistan is as a means to these ends. If the renewed Afghan effort proves not to be the way to achieve those ends, then other efforts, in evolved circumstances will need to be considered.
It is not a given that altered, future efforts would be military in nature, though, that is, at least in part, likely. But the threats are real. So, too, must be our actions to meet them.