Last night’s speech on Afghanistan was typical Obama: instead of acting decisively, he splits the difference. The United States will send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan but with a timetable, sort of, for withdrawal.
It sounded an awful lot like what George W. Bush would have opted to do in Afghanistan if given a third term, which probably explains the enthusiastic response to the speech in some corners of the right. Obama made “a really good decision,” Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, told reporters. “It’s going to take a couple of years to see real, coherent progress. We need to give the president time.” (He added: “If you had told me Obama would have doubled the number of troops in Afghan and not significantly reduced our presence in Iraq, I would have had a hard time believing it.”)
The fundamental policy problem in Afghanistan is that there is no achievable mission at this point. Whatever one thinks about the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration did pretty much smash up Al Qaeda. That doesn’t mean the organization is finished, or that it’s incapable of periodically launching a major attack, or that there aren’t a lot of people out there inspired by Al Qaeda who would like to do us harm. But as a terrorist group capable of central planning and with global reach, Al Qaeda has been badly weakened since 9/11.
It’s hard to argue with this recent op-ed by Michael Sheehan, a fellow at the New York University Center for Law and Security and former ambassador at large for counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department:
We invaded Afghanistan eight years ago to prevent another terrorist attack on our nation, and we have been successful. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacked us three times in three years: at our African embassies in August 1998; the USS Cole incident in October 2000, and finally on our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001. In the eight years following Sept. 11, they have failed to attack us on our soil. In fact, al Qaeda can count only one terrorism attack in the entire West (London, 2005), with perhaps “partial credit” for another (Madrid, 2004). This, by any standard, is a failure on the part of al Qaeda.
The problem, Sheehan continues, is that “we have continually moved the ‘goal posts’ of our counter-terrorism success in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign. The initial objective of kicking out al Qaeda has now morphed into an ambitious program of reinventing Afghanistan as a “modern state”:
We have gotten ourselves bogged down into a complex insurgent war that the Taliban can sustain at some level almost indefinitely, even though they have no real prospects of actually winning…
[O]ur success in throttling the strategic al Qaeda was achieved without pacifying Afghanistan and without occupying western Pakistan. Instead, we have used a massive intelligence operation to find and destroy al Qaeda’s strategic capability there and denied them the ability to mount terrorist attacks outside of their immediate operational area.
Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is still the main fighting force in the country. In essence, it remains an occupational force with counterinsurgency doctrine sprinkled on top. While U.S. conventional soldiers are kicking in doors of mud homes in poor Afghan villages, it is hard to envision long-term success, no matter how many health clinics they build the next day.
We have no achievable military goals in Afghanistan other than temporarily slowing the Taliban’s “momentum,” and “nation-building” is a fool’s errand. Foreign powers have been trying to achieve that in Afghanistan for a long time and no one has succeeded yet. The idea that an Afghan national security force will be trained and ready to assume control of the country in 18 months is equally ludicrous, as is the idea that the U.S. is going to win “hearts and minds.”
The president’s plan will put tens of thousands of additional troops in harm’s way with almost no chance of fundamentally changing the long-term prospects for Afghanistan.