On the other hand, Peter Bergen, a leading terrorism expert, says the belief that the Taliban will repudiate Al Qaeda “is wishful thinking, based on absolutely no empirical evidence.” The Taliban refused to repudiate Al Qaeda in 2001, when they could have saved their skins by doing so. Bergen argues that Al Qaeda has so infected various Taliban groupings that the distinction between “terrorist” and “insurgent” has become almost meaningless. It is, for example, widely agreed that the so-called Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban has close and long-standing ties with Al Qaeda.
There is a secondary argument that constitutes the modern equivalent of the Vietnam-era domino theory. Hawks like McCain abhor the idea that the U.S. might once again “cut and run,” and predict a drastic loss of national prestige should we do so. Terrorists around the globe would take heart. Unlikely, says Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations; in the aftermath of Vietnam, he recalls, adroit diplomacy restored American standing in Asia despite predictions of doom. But Islamic extremism is a revolutionary ideology rather than an exhausted state system. Isn’t it reasonable to fear that extremists elsewhere would see American withdrawal as proof that history was on their side, that not even the greatest power in the world could stand up to the force of jihad? In his new book, Obama’s Wars—vastly less triumphal in tone than Bush at War—Woodward quotes General James Jones, then Obama’s national-security adviser, arguing that if the terrorists are seen to have won, “you’ll see expressions of these kinds of things in Africa, South America, you name it.”
It’s impossible to make more than an educated guess as to whether Jones or Gelb is closer to the truth. What is clear is that the national-security argument for staying in Afghanistan is stronger than it was in Iraq—or Vietnam, for that matter—though weaker than it was for the initial attack in late 2001. The threat is real but limited; we also need to respond to new dangers in Yemen, North Africa, and elsewhere. That being so, it seems equally foolish to argue that we must stay for as long as it takes and spend whatever it takes in troops and resources as it is to argue that we should get out now.
If our security really is at risk in Afghanistan, we can’t be satisfied with the equivalent of “Vietnamization.”
And yet “get out now” has become a widespread liberal refrain. There are some serious arguments for immediate withdrawal: Robert Pape, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, argues that it is the American military presence itself that provokes extremists. But the passion behind “get out now” has as much to do with Iraq as with Afghanistan: The fiasco of the Iraq War has undermined both the hope that U.S. power can do much good in the world and the belief that the threat of terrorism is grave enough at times to require a military response. We are, in this sense, back in the mental world of Vietnam. And the overreaction to our setback in Iraq may make it very difficult in the future to commit resources to combating terrorism. Communism collapsed under its own contradictions; perhaps Islamic extremism will do so, too, but not until it has brought a great deal more suffering into the world.
When he took office, Barack Obama did not question that the war in Afghanistan needed to be fought and to no longer be fought as a halfhearted counterterror operation. But how, then? Obama quickly ordered in more troops but also commissioned a top-to-bottom review of the whole effort. In May 2009, he authorized the replacement of his commanding general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, an old-school soldier, with Stanley McChrystal, a passionate advocate of the “counterinsurgency” doctrine. He also ordered a significant increase in the civilian presence in Afghanistan.
That August, McChrystal wrote his famous 66-page memo outlining a new approach to the war. NATO was in danger of losing the war, McChrystal wrote, and a loss would be catastrophic to the West. ISAF, the acronym for the NATO force in Afghanistan, would thus have to “change its operating culture to pursue a counterinsurgency approach that puts the Afghan people first.” McChrystal wanted 40,000 more troops, but the war he wanted to fight bore a much stronger resemblance to the nation-building efforts of the post–Cold War period. Military and civilian officials would work together to help build “a stronger Afghan government that is seen by the Afghan people as working in their interests.”
Counterinsurgency doctrine was an old idea, dating back to the era of European colonialism, which had been revived by a new generation of officers shaped by the peacekeeping operations and humanitarian interventions of recent years. Foremost among them was David Petraeus, who became commander of the effort in Afghanistan earlier this year, when Obama replaced McChrystal. First as a divisional commander in Iraq and then, in 2007, as overall commander of the troop surge, Petraeus had fought a very different kind of war, emphasizing economic development as much as firepower, sending small units of soldiers to live among the Iraqis, bolstering local government, minimizing civilian casualties. In between those two experiences, in 2005–06, Petraeus had convened a group of military and civilian intellectuals to write a new counterinsurgency field manual.