For the millions of Americans who opposed the war in Iraq, including Barack Obama, Afghanistan was the good war—“The War We Need to Win,” as candidate Obama titled a key foreign-policy speech he gave in August 2007. Iraq, Obama said, was a sickeningly misguided gift to Osama bin Laden: “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Iraq posed no threat to American national security; Afghanistan and Pakistan did. Obama vowed to wind down the war we didn’t need to win in order to ramp up the one we did. He was elected president for many reasons, but that pledge was among the most important.
Today, with the twelve-month review of Obama’s strategy scheduled for the coming weeks, the war in Afghanistan is his—and it doesn’t feel very good. What it feels like, increasingly, is Vietnam, especially to people who formed their views of American military power, and indeed of America itself, in opposition to the Vietnam War. Obama has poured in 50,000 more troops, at a cost of about $100 billion a year. Half of the 1,400 American combat deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since Obama became president. American lives and treasure seem to be disappearing into the quicksand of a country governed by a corrupt regime whose indifference to the public good fuels the insurgency the U.S. is seeking to repress. Bulletins from an optimistic commanding general about enemy body counts and liberated villages fill us with hope for a moment—until we read the dismal news accounts from the front. The loudest voice in favor of pushing on, mocking the advocates of phased withdrawal, belongs to John McCain, the gung ho Vietnam vet.
The comparison is so painfully obvious and has been made so persistently, at least on the left, that we owe it to ourselves to think hard about the stakes in Afghanistan. The central lesson many Americans took away from Vietnam, and from the proxy wars the U.S. fought all over the world during the Cold War, was that our political leaders exaggerated, or even fabricated, the stakes. LBJ said that if Vietnam fell, the rest of Asia would fall with it. President Reagan said that if we didn’t stand up to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Central America would go Communist. They were wrong; the domino theory was a red herring. But what about Afghanistan? In the West Point speech in December 2009 in which he announced his plans to send 30,000 more troops, Obama asserted that the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan “is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda,” and thus the threat to American national security “will only grow if the region slides backward and Al Qaeda can operate with impunity.” White House officials say that the upcoming review will not lead to any change of course. U.S. and NATO officials have agreed that troops will fully hand off combat duties to Afghan forces only by the end of 2014, and even that is not a hard date. If Obama is right about the stakes, then he may be right about the strategy. Or is he hyping the danger, the way LBJ and Reagan—and George W. Bush—once did? And even if the fight really does matter, is victory, or however we choose to define success, even possible?
Let’s back off for a moment to consider how liberals in America have come to think about war. Woodrow Wilson was the first American president faced with the challenge of persuading the American people to fight a war against an enemy that did not directly menace our territory. At the time, pacifism was virtually the default position of American liberals. Blood-and-thunder Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt were eager to fight the Hun; Wilson’s “base,” as we would say today, was not. Before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917—in one of the great speeches of American history—Wilson argued that German submarine warfare had thrown down a challenge “to all mankind,” and that the U.S. must respond not out of “revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right.” Wilson appealed to idealism as well as to an idealistic conception of America’s national security: German autocracy and bellicosity, he said, undermined the world order America was seeking to build. Thus Wilson’s ringing declaration: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
It took another generation for U.S. interests to become so global, and for advances in technology to bring the world so close together, that another war halfway across the world could be seen as an immediate and dire threat to American national security. After Pearl Harbor, FDR didn’t have to reissue Wilson’s appeal to high-mindedness; Americans left and right united behind a threat to their way of life.
The national consensus on war came to an end only in the latter stages of the Cold War. Vietnam was the Waterloo of the Wilsonian principle that America could use its military might to shape a better world. And liberals would no longer trust American leaders who invoked national security, as FDR or Truman had, as grounds for military intervention. Only when the Cold War was over did the Wilsonian principle reemerge. With our national security no longer under threat, Americans began to consider the possibility that force could be used for strictly moral purposes—to rescue people in states that, absent American or Russian support, had begun collapsing into anarchy. First in Somalia, then in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the U.S. sent the military to places of no obvious strategic importance. Popular opinion about these forays did not divide along left-right Cold War lines but rather separated idealists in both camps from “realists” skeptical about the whole idea of using force for the vindication of right.
And then 9/11 brought this “honeymoon from history” to a crashing end. The terrorist attacks took America back to the earliest years of the Cold War, when a virus let loose in remote parts of the world threatened to bring terrible harm to the home front. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5, a pledge requiring a NATO member country to consider an act of war on a fellow member as an act directed at itself. Like FDR, President Bush had no need to resort to high principle in justifying a military response. Afghanistan was not a “liberal war” in the post–Cold War sense. Bush had little to say about the sufferings of the Afghan people under the medieval rule of the Taliban; he even gave Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, the chance to retain power and avoid war by turning over Osama bin Laden. Yet the war enjoyed almost universal approval in the U.S. and in much of the world. Indeed, Afghanistan offered liberals an opportunity to demonstrate a patriotic belief in war as an instrument of national self-defense. But how long could it be before the Cold War cycle of commitment and disillusionment ran its course?
The first phase of the war was very brief and very successful: A few hundred CIA officers and special-operations personnel teamed up with an indigenous force to drive the Taliban and their allies from Al Qaeda out of the country. The U.S. and the U.N. helped stand up a new government, and then both the Bush administration and the American people turned their attention elsewhere—to Iraq, mostly.
Afghanistan really returned to the news only when Obama and other Democrats began to use the war to bludgeon Bush’s failure to focus on the real source of terrorism. Whatever the political calculation, the threat was genuine: By this time, the Taliban were flourishing once again in the Afghan countryside, Al Qaeda was securely established in Pakistani sanctuaries, the opium harvest was booming, and the government of President Hamid Karzai was proving itself thoroughly feckless.
What happened? It’s correct, up to a point, to say that Bush had drained Afghanistan of crucial resources in order to fight the war he really cared about, in Iraq. But his administration had never thought far beyond that first phase because it did not believe in using the military for the nontraditional purposes that had become common in the post–Cold War era, like peacekeeping or nation-building. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the mastermind of the Afghan War, viewed nation-building as a species of socialism. In Bush at War, Bob Woodward records that three days before the start of hostilities, the president asked his national-security advisers, “Who will run the country?” and none of them had any idea. Bush refused European offers—possibly not altogether sincere in any case—to provide tens of thousands of troops for peacekeeping. Only the most tentative effort was made to train Afghan security forces.
Bush himself has since expressed regret for this mistake. In his new memoir, Decision Points, he writes that stabilizing Afghanistan “turned out to be even more daunting than I anticipated” and concedes that “democracy is a journey that requires a nation to build governing institutions such as courts of law, security forces, an education system, a free press, and a vibrant civil society.” An awful lot of people tried to tell the president that at the time.
What, then, are the stakes of this failed war that Barack Obama was unlucky enough to inherit? Few observers question that the Taliban are bad for Afghanistan and that a return to Taliban rule, even in parts of the country, would be a disaster for women and girls and for all the hopes of modernization raised by the international presence of the past nine years. But would it be bad for the U.S. and the West? Would the Taliban, in fact, bring back Al Qaeda? There is no consensus on this question. In a recent report titled “A New Way Forward,” a panel of scholars and military and intelligence experts called the Afghan Study Group predicts that “the Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda into Afghan soil.” Al Qaeda might not even accept such an invitation, since Pakistan “is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and landlocked Afghanistan.” The report’s conclusion: “The U.S. interests at stake do not warrant this level of sacrifice” being made in both lives and money.
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.
The premise of counterinsurgency—or COIN, as it is known to aficionados—is that insurgencies are political movements that can be defeated only by a political response. “Military action,” the manual states, “can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy”—by suppressing the insurgency fostered by the illegitimate state. But COIN requires war-making, diplomacy, economic development, and political reform. And “without the host-nation government achieving legitimacy, COIN cannot succeed.” One of the reasons for the vogue COIN has enjoyed is that the doctrine joins the imagery of smart, nimble warfare that hawks appreciate to the kind of social engineering that has been central to the liberal idea of warfare from the time of Wilson. But COIN also responds directly to the world we now live in, a world not of powerful and belligerent adversaries but rather of weak and failing states within which insurgencies flourish. COIN theorists recognize that you can’t defeat insurgencies without addressing their root causes.
The news reports of the epic White House debate provoked by the McChrystal memo focused almost exclusively on numbers, but the real heart of the disagreement was over the twin premises of the McChrystal memo: We had to win, and we couldn’t win without COIN. Woodward cites an exchange in which Vice-President Joe Biden insists that the real fight is in Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was hiding, and questions the idea that Al Qaeda would ride back into Afghanistan with a triumphant Taliban. Biden thus argues for a modest counterterrorism effort. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accepts that Biden might be right but rejoins that a Taliban success would be “framed as the defeat of a second superpower,” after Russia, and would both encourage extremists and dishearten allies. American prestige was on the line, as it had been in the Cold War. And if we can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan, we need the more ambitious effort McChrystal advocates.
Obama seems to waver between these two views. What you sense most acutely in reading Obama’s Wars is a president faced with a situation in which all options are bad and in which he could not start afresh, because the American people were running out of patience and because seven years of drift and poor policy had alienated the Afghan people and strengthened the position of the Taliban. If the U.S. couldn’t afford to lose, did it have to fight the COIN strategy Petraeus and McChrystal were so single-mindedly pushing? Could it even do so?
During the debate, a senior White House official said to me, “Where’s the civilian counterpart to McChrystal? He can do what he says he will do militarily. But they say it will not work if we don’t also have this? Where’s this? What is it, 240 people?” That was practically the total American civilian presence in Afghanistan at the time. America simply didn’t have the civilian force to fight the war McChrystal was advocating. There has been talk for years in American policy circles about creating an “operational” State Department or some other agency that could deploy specialists to fragile states or post-conflict areas just as the military could rapidly deploy special-operations forces. But it was just talk. Indeed, the memo itself was very vague about what this massive civilian effort would be, as if McChrystal hadn’t mastered the fine points of the religion to which he had converted. The debate in the White House thus took place in a strange vacuum.
Though naturally sympathetic to a “root cause” approach, Obama appeared to become increasingly skeptical that a COIN strategy could ever be made to work, at least in the required time. Few places in the world seemed as poorly suited to a counterinsurgency strategy as Afghanistan, where the national government had little reach, tribal identification was profound, and the insurgents could always seek sanctuary across the border, in Pakistan. And, as one leading COIN advocate says, “if you’ve squandered your initial goodwill, it’s too late to do COIN.” Yet Petraeus and McChrystal insisted that the more limited counterterror strategy Biden and others advocated would just reproduce the existing pattern of short-term military gains followed by Taliban resurgence. The frightening implication was that neither COIN nor counterterror strategy would work.
And Obama recognized that his military options were limited by the national mood. The president’s highly controversial decision to set July 2011 as the beginning of troop withdrawals constituted an acknowledgment that the American people lacked the patience and commitment for the long-term struggle that counterinsurgency strategy envisions. Obama also lowered the country’s sights by saying the goal was not defeating the Taliban but “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies.” The 30,000 additional troops he authorized would flush the insurgents from their strongholds; Afghan civilians, working with NATO and U.N. partners, would establish local governance; and the troops would ultimately hand off control to the additional Afghan security forces Obama had agreed to train. The Obama plan wasn’t the nationwide counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal had sought, but it wasn’t a narrower counterterrorism strategy either. The plan depended on finally winning over hearts and minds in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.
Obama’s West Point speech had less in it of the soaring Wilson than it did of the hard-nosed Truman, who insisted at the dawn of the Cold War that America’s national security required the U.S. to come to the aid of embattled Turkey and Greece. But Obama’s audience wasn’t prepared for either Wilson or Truman. The collapse of the economy crowded out all other threats. And eight years after 9/11, many Americans had trouble seeing what Afghanistan had to do with national security. A Gallup poll showed that 35 percent approved of the president’s Afghanistan policy and 55 percent opposed it. Liberals were especially disaffected. Senator Russ Feingold said he and other Democrats would try to block funding for the additional troops. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that the speech was a failure, since Obama hadn’t explained why 30,000 troops were needed to fight a handful of Al Qaeda terrorists, hadn’t provided the resources needed for a full-bore counterinsurgency program, hadn’t fully reckoned with the irredeemability of the Afghan government. Rich’s claim that COIN theory would require “a minimal force of 568,000” American troops was a canard, but the cynicism it expressed about American capacities to do good in the world was widespread.
The war Obama has chosen to fight in Afghanistan involves a great deal of targeted, concentrated violence. Every night, teams of special-operations fighters conduct raids designed to capture or kill mid-level Taliban figures. Unmanned drones fire missiles at Taliban hideouts across the Pakistani border. But American and NATO soldiers are also deeply engaged in trying to win the battle for hearts and minds. This has often been a very clumsy exercise. McChrystal himself, a former special-ops soldier with a genuine gift for killing bad guys, talked about setting up “governments in a box,” as if legitimacy were something you could unwrap and hand out like military rations.
The first installment of this experiment, when the Marines brought in Afghan civilians after fighting a bitter, weeks-long battle in Marja, in Helmand province, in early 2010, fared poorly; remaining insurgents succeeded in terrorizing Afghans who sought to cooperate with the local government. The situation in Marja has since stabilized, but Kandahar, the new focus of battle, remains extremely volatile. The city government has been able to fill only a third of its 120 jobs—in general, the most menial of them—thanks to both low pay and fear. Virtually everything is done by Americans. “Right now, the government capacity is so anemic that we have to do it,” an American official told the Washington Post. “We are acting as donor and government. That’s not sustainable.”
But counterinsurgency, if no magic bullet, is also not a mirage. I spent a week earlier this year watching the strategy unfold in Arghandab, a community of pomegranate and grape orchards barely ten miles north of Kandahar. Arghandab is one of 100 key districts, mostly in the embattled south and east, where soldiers were to clear out insurgents and then American and Afghan civilians were to set up the rudiments of local government. A battalion sent there in the summer of 2009 had fought a series of bloody battles that had largely driven insurgents from the district. A three-man “district support team” had arrived in the fall to help stand up a local government, to administer development projects, and to work with farmers.
By the time I arrived, Arghandab had become safe enough for the district governor, Hajji Abdul Jabbar, to report to work every day at the district center inside the base. Abdul Jabbar was just about the whole of government in the district, since the few officials sent from ministries in Kabul tended either not to show up or not to work when they did. Every morning, Abdul Jabbar held an audience for petitioners, listening to their grievances and stamping their tattered papers. Once a week, he met with the district shura, a group of village elders and farmers. The meeting I attended featured a lot of shouting and accusation, much of it by Abdul Jabbar. It seemed pretty formless, but Kevin Melton, a very tall and very young official from USAID, leaned over to me and said, “They’re talking about security. Normally it’s ISAF doing the talking. They’re pointing fingers at each other; that’s progress.”
I felt like I was watching a political-science experiment: forging a social contract in a state of nature. Melton believed that what mattered was not so much building roads or schools as overcoming the legacy of distrust, the habit of seeking violent solutions to all problems. He saw his job as helping give local citizens a voice in decisions, so that ultimately they could take responsibility for themselves rather than simply accepting assistance. And he felt that his efforts were working. Thanks to small-team units living out in the district and to constant patrolling among the villages—a crucial element of COIN strategy—the Taliban presence had dropped significantly. “If things continue as they have for the last four months,” Melton quoted Hajji Mohammad, the shura leader, as saying, “this next year could reverse the last seven.”
Soon after I left, a terrible thing happened: Hajji Abdul Jabbar and his son were killed by a car bomb planted in the road on their way home. But then a remarkable thing happened: Hajji Mohammad, a younger and better-educated man, immediately stepped forward and volunteered to replace the district governor. The pomegranate harvest had been solid, with far less wastage than the farmers had come to take for granted. Investors were talking about building storage capacities and improving roads. Melton felt that the innumerable threads of the social contract were ever so slowly being knit together. And Afghanistan is full of places like Arghandab, where girls have begun going to school, women have emerged from seclusion, poor farmers have found that they can govern themselves, businesses have flourished. If people hunger for a better life, outsiders can help them. And doing so is a noble enterprise—even if, and maybe especially if, the effort takes place in the middle of a war.
But this kind of bottom-up change is the work of a generation or more. The battle the U.S. and its allies are fighting is a matter of months and scant years. If the counterinsurgency effort is to help drive the Taliban from Afghanistan by persuading millions of ordinary Afghans to prefer the government to the insurgents, it would have to be a national effort sustained by the national government. And it is no such thing. While the U.S., NATO, and the U.N. have been trying to build up the capacity of the Karzai government, Karzai himself has refused to move against corrupt officials or brutal warlords, refused to empower local governors, refused to extend desperately needed services to the countryside, refused even to support the large-scale civilian effort. You can’t want good governance more than the country’s actual governors do.
So where are we? We don’t know for sure if we can afford to cede portions of Afghanistan to the Taliban. We don’t know for sure if we could minimize the threat through classic counterterror measures. We know we’re getting better at killing insurgents, but we don’t know if that’s doing any good or if they’ll just keep regenerating. Senior administration officials admit that the planned transition to Afghan control may fail. Can we really wait until 2014 to find out? The war may end not with a handoff but with a political negotiation (though the discovery that an impostor has passed himself off to NATO and Afghan officials as Mullah Omar’s right-hand man does not give one much confidence about this process either). Such talks, if they are to succeed, will have to bring together Taliban leaders with Afghan, U.S., and NATO officials, as well as the neighbors who have a real, if often conflicting, stake in the region: Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps China.
Those talks will have to protect not only our own interests, or Hamid Karzai’s, but also those of the Afghan people: We have incurred obligations to them by virtue of our massive intervention in their lives and the hopes we have raised. What this means is that even if NATO forces ultimately withdraw from some areas that Afghan security cannot control, and that thus may fall to the Taliban, the U.S. and other international actors must sustain the civilian side of the effort everywhere security permits. Moreover, if our security really is at risk in Afghanistan, we can’t be satisfied with a Central Asian equivalent of “Vietnamization,” in which our proxies collapse once we fly off on our helicopters. We must be prepared to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan—but at a much lower level of commitment than now.
The endgame, whatever it is, will be a lengthy, messy, and almost certainly unsatisfying process. But one lesson we have learned in recent years is that the world is not nearly so amenable to the application of American power as we thought. The world is recalcitrant. That doesn’t mean we turn away. It means that we need to be more modest than we have been and more persistent than we have been. Persistence and modesty are not classical liberal virtues. Maybe they should be.