Obama's Dilemma in Afghanistan

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jerome Slater Professor Emeritus of political science, SUNY Buffalo

Having heard widely conflicting advice on what should be done about Afghanistan, Obama has tried to split the difference. On the one hand, he has committed the U.S. to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and reports indicate that NATO countries may contribute an additional 5000-8000 soldiers -- if that actually happens, the president will have come close to meeting General McChrystal's request for 40,000 new troops. On the other hand, Obama has also committed himself to start the process of withdrawing troops in eighteen months.

As a number of observers have already noted on its face the Obama compromise is incoherent. If the war is so vital to U.S. security, then how can we set a date to withdraw until we've actually won it -- whenever that might be? On the other hand, if it is not as vital as all that, why are we escalating it rather than beginning the process of disengagement?

In response to these obvious objections, spokesmen of the administration are already hinting that the 18 month deadline is not fixed in stone -- that is, not a deadline after all. Indeed, it will be difficult to imagine that Obama will withdraw troops if the war is still going badly; far more likely, he will send even more. If so, when he attempted to accommodate opponents of the war, were his fingers were crossed behind his back?

There is a good chance we will discover the administration's true intentions and strategy sooner than the July 2011 "deadline." Even the augmented forces, let alone the presumably smaller and smaller ones that will be available beginning next summer, are probably going to be insufficient -- perhaps much too insufficient -- to achieve a decisive and sustainable victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This is especially likely if the Obama plan for building up and improving the Afghan government's forces should fall short of its optimistic goals, or if current Pakistani/U.S. military efforts fail to prevent the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their Pakistani allies from continuing to use the border areas for sanctuary, training, resupply, and continuing attacks across the borders.

Should the gloomy prognoses prove correct, Obama's predicament will be acute. To whom should he then turn to for advice? Genuine expertise on Afghanistan is highly limited, and the few experts are sharply divided themselves about what should be done. Thus, it is highly likely that Obama will face directly conflicting arguments on whether to escalate further to prevent a Taliban takeover, or to change our strategy to something like the one previously advocated by Joe Biden and many others: withdraw most U.S. forces on the ground but maintain sufficient U.S. military power in the region to attack al-Qaeda forces and bases should they be reestablished in Afghanistan.

If the situation does not improve, both sides of the debate -- same strategy/larger forces vs. different strategy/smaller forces -- will have seemingly strong arguments to make, and the pros and cons of each will appear to be very closely balanced. Worse, there are so many variables that can affect the outcome in Afghanistan, many of them complex or poorly understood, that the consequences of either strategy -- or, for that matter, of any proposals that may emerge -- are essentially unpredictable.

Consider the likely arguments on both sides of the recent and probable future debate, beginning with the pro-escalation side. We are still losing the war and can't win it without a further infusion of troops. Losing the war would be a strategic disaster, likely to result in the reestablishment of Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda base for attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. itself -- maybe next time with nuclear weapons, as Obama rather too glancingly warned. Even short of that, there would be a massive loss of U.S. international credibility and a widespread destabilization of the Middle East, including the possible collapse of the conservative, pro-American regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan.

Beyond the national-interest and strategic considerations, the argument will surely be that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the almost certain outcome of the Biden option, would be a moral disaster: a betrayal of the Afghan people who will be returned to the medieval tyranny we liberated them from in 2001 -- and then reneged.

These are serious arguments. However, there will be equally serious arguments for de-escalation. As Steven Walt has pointed out, even a decisive victory in Afghanistan would not end the growing threat of al-Qaeda or other extremist safe havens in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or elsewhere. In any case no one has ever been able to sustain a military victory over Afghanistan -- from Alexander in the 3rd century BC to Britain in the 19th and the Soviet Union in the 20th As Walt and others have argued, given the military's own estimates of the ratio of foreign troops to local population necessary for sustained victory against well-armed and motivated insurgents, there is no reason to think that anything less than hundreds of thousands of additional troops could work -- and even similar numbers were insufficient in South Vietnam. Anyway, such forces are simply not available, at least not without the resumption of conscription in the United States, currently a political impossibility. Of course, that could change should there be another devastating attack on the U.S. homeland.

The goal of the U.S. in Afghanistan, opponents of escalation will argue, should not be to prevent the Taliban from taking over but to prevent a return of al-Qaeda to the country -- that is, a revived Joe Biden option. In any case, a number of experts contend that the Taliban would have no incentive to allow al-Qaeda to use their country to attack others, knowing as they do the previous result.

As for the wider consequences, opponents of escalation will point out that in the past, credibility arguments or domino theories that predicted regional disasters following setbacks or even lost wars have proven to be false: as was the case of Vietnam, the aftermath of which was a greatly strengthened Southeast Asia, if only because the potential dominos took strong steps to ensure they wouldn't be next. As to the moral issues, the argument will be that the human costs to the Afghan people of a long and escalating war on their territory might well be worse than the costs of a Taliban-imposed peace -- not to mention the growing human costs to our own troops and their families. Finally, the purely economic burdens of further escalation would be enormous -- the administration estimates that just the 30,000 new troops to be sent to Afghanistan will cost an annual $30 billion beyond what we already spend there.

The problem is that all of these arguments, on both sides, are plausible -- and all are subject to equally plausible counter-arguments. Just to take one, while there is no question that further escalation would entail increased U.S. casualties and significantly greater economic costs, if the more dire predictions proved to be accurate, those human and economic costs would be far less than those that would follow losing the war.

So, while the short-term effects might seem reasonably predictable, no one -- no one, including the experts, the U.S. military, and the Obama administration -- would know the medium, let alone long-term, outcomes of any actions we might take. If that is the case, where does that leave us if present policies fail?

Since the international, strategic, moral, and even the ultimate economic consequences of whatever we do are unknowable, we might just as well make the relatively more knowable domestic political consequences in the United States the decisive consideration. And that leads -- at least for me -- to one conclusion: the best thing for Obama, and for the Democratic party, and indeed for the cause of liberalism in this country, would be to give the military what it wants (within reason), if the new troop commitments prove to be insufficient to turn the tide in Afghanistan.

If the military gets what it wants and the tide turns in Afghanistan, Obama will get some of the credit; if it doesn't, at least Obama and the Democrats can say they gave the armed forces what they said it needed. But if the military is denied and then we lose, Obama and the Democrats will get the blame, with electoral consequences likely to reverberate for many years. In the worse case, a Taliban-al Qaeda victory followed by a massive attack on the United States, for years to come we can kiss goodbye to liberalism in this country, and maybe even to minimally rational foreign and domestic policies.