Today, in the wake of his Nobel peace surprise, President Barack Obama should call Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and ask if he really needs tens of thousands more troops in Afghanistan. Then, in the truest spirit of his new status as a peace laureate, Obama should ask McChrystal what America could achieve by doubling, tripling or quadrupling his proposed troop increase.
My last sentence may seem Orwellian. But it isn't. Here's my premise: It fundamentally harms the long-term cause of global peace if America permits itself to move through history in a remorseless, irresponsible cycle wherein a Bush-type leader launches reckless wars and an Obama-type leader yanks our troops out. No matter how much we want our troops home, it is immoral to throw a country into chaos and then walk away simply because we grow weary of that chaos.
Counterinsurgency -- the broad, innovative, flexible portfolio of tactics aimed at keeping civilians safe and earning their trust and cooperation -- offers the best hope I've seen for attempting to make things right in Afghanistan. (For a basic, digestible, and occasionally funny introduction to the principles of counterinsurgency, watch Jon Stewart's 2007 interview with Lt. Col. John Nagl. For an assessment of what counterinsurgency might and might not achieve today, read "Crux of Afghan Debate: Will More Troops Curb Terror?" in the New York Times."
That Times story summarizes the opinion of counterinsurgency experts like this:
They say a large American-led NATO ground force is needed to clear Taliban-held territory and hold it while instructors train sufficient, competent Afghan soldiers and police officers to secure those areas. The allied force, the argument goes, will buy time and space to help the Afghans build more effective local, provincial and national governments, and create some semblance of an economy. Since many polls in Afghanistan show little support for the Taliban, a stable, peaceful country would not be likely to become a home for terrorists.
Even under the rosiest of military scenarios, Obama would not be able to forge lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan without achieving a wide range of diplomatic successes: with our NATO partners, with Russia, with Iran, with rival Afghan tribes, with Democrats, with Republicans, and -- crucially -- with nuclear-armed Pakistan and nuclear-armed India.
In reading that last sentence, in considering both the difficulty and scope of what needs to happen, I hope it is clear why Afghanistan represents the opportunity for Obama to serve the American people brilliantly and, along the way, demonstrate that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
I just want to repeat the premise of what I've written here. Because it's crucial to understanding why Obama's effectiveness as a stabilizer and a peacemaker may ride on his willingness to endure the irony-laced headlines of the future. Imagine "Nobel Peace Laureate Escalates Afghan War" as a headline, for example.
So again, here's my premise: It fundamentally harms the long-term cause of global peace if America permits itself to move through history in a remorseless, irresponsible cycle wherein a Bush-type leader launches reckless wars and an Obama-type leader yanks our troops out.
America -- like any nation -- eventually pays for reckless actions.
We pay if we run away and try to forget.
We pay if we admit errors, take responsibility, make sacrifices, do our best to make things right, and come to understand the true cost of vengeance-fueled invasions.