President Obama is pushing his national security team for more detail about an exit strategy for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.
The president met with his advisers Wednesday to chart new strategy for the war. Obama went into this latest strategy session with what the White House had called four "final" options on the table.
Each involved sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but would require different troop levels and would embrace different goals for the U.S. involvement there.
At the high end, there's the 40,000 or so troops that the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, says he needs to pull off a successful counter-insurgency. At the low end, an option of 10,000 extra troops, mostly working as trainers for the Afghan army and police force. One middle option would focus on a narrower, counter-terrorism mission, while another, said to be endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, backs sending 34,000 or so extra U.S. troops while calling on NATO to contribute several thousand more.
After the 2 1/2 hour meeting Wednesday, two administration officials told NPR that the president does not plan to accept any of the options in their current form. The officials said the president pushed his team for more detail about an exit strategy for U.S. forces. They said he wants to make clear to the Afghan government that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended.
Here's the real question that needs to be answered: What the hell are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan? Are our goals realistic or attainable? Because just sending more troops in the name of "winning" is merely a repeat of the mistake of Vietnam. Professor Cole explains:
Obama is said to have rejected all the plans so far presented to him, insofar as none leads to a foreseeable end-game.
If AP is right, this development is encouraging. All along, the things missing from Washington's plans for Afghanistan have been a firm, specific set of goals, a detailed means of attaining them, and a way to know when they have been attained.
How unlikely the big counter-insurgency dreams of some military analysts are to result in success is apparent in this recent Frontline report, in which the US military outpost in a village in Helmand never succeeds in getting the locals to open a single shop in the bazaar under US protection, and never succeeds in stopping the constant sniping at them by Taliban forces.
Cole: Let's back up and talk about what the goal is in Afghanistan. Your strategy and your tactics are going to come out of your goal. I'm a little bit afraid that, in regard to the goal, you see a lot of mission creep. The goal has become standing up an Afghan government and an Afghan military that's relatively stable and can control the country. There's a lot of state-building involved in that.
I am a severe skeptic on this score. I don't think that's a proper goal for the U.S. military. I think we are dealing with a tribal society of people who, as a matter of course, are organized by clan and have feuds with each other, and feuds with other tribes, and feuds with their cousins. I think that Washington misinterprets this feuding as Talibanism, and thinks that if you put a lot of troops in there, you can pacify the country and settle it down.
I just think it is a misreading of the character of the country. Afghanistan is a country where localism is important, where people don't like the central government coming in and bothering them. There's a sense in which the communist government of the 1980s, backed by the Soviet Union, wanted to drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, and to do that you had to impose central government policy on the countryside and on the villagers. And the villagers rose up and kicked the Soviets and the communists out. They were outraged, in part, against the centralizing tendency of Kabul.
So, I just think that Afghanistan is a country that needs a light touch. You just have to accept that there's going to be a certain amount of disorder in the countryside as long as people are organized tribally. And if you put 100,000 or 150,000 Western troops in there, that's just more people to feud with.
Finding an exit strategy for Afghanistan will be more challenging than it was for Iraq. At least Iraq had an infrastructure (albeit dysfunctional) prior to our invasion, so setting up a semblance of a government and leaving is actually attainable. No such infrastructure exists in Afghanistan, and it would be delusional to think we can build one. Again, Professor Cole:
Cole: If you are asking what I think is a plausible goal, I'd say it is training an Afghan army and police force as best you can. But you are just going to have to accept that it's going to be a weak government. You can shore it up to some extent, but you need to shore it up behind the scenes. It can't be seen to be a puppet government, because that will undermine its legitimacy.
A government that can provide more services to people is good. Road building is good. Encouraging the markets to open is good. But as far as fighting what the U.S. is calling Taliban, they are really just regional warlords. They might have a tactical alliance with the old Taliban of Mullah Omar, but it's a mistake to sweep them all up into a single category . . . '
As with Iraq, getting out will be much more difficult than getting in. Shrub, the idiot, was content to invade and then wage war without end, but now Obama is stuck with trying to clean up this mess. The reality is that there are no easy ways out of Afghanistan: simply pulling out would leave behind an 'opium and terrorist' incubator as well as a humanitarian hell, but blind escalation merely postpones the inevitable while further draining American lives and wealth. In the end, we will leave Afghanistan; the question is really what we leave behind and when we leave it. Not an easy choice.
So I support Obama's decision to reject the current proposals. I only hope he can come up with a workable plan that will actually work to get us out of Afghanistan.
(for the purposes of this post, I'm not addressing what a huge mistake it was to start these wars; the past cannot be changed: we're there. The question is what to do now.)