Last week the Obama administration sent clear signals that it was planning to fold its tents in Afghanistan earlier than previously advertised. That set off a flurry of speculation as to why and whether we were giving up on the mission. Most of the talk is about how a retreat could be accomplished with credibility intact. After all, Afghanistan is where the "war on terror" began more than ten years ago.
Once again, though, we are focusing on means and modalities without specifying the ends. That's been true for most of the past decade's engagement in the place. Having rooted out the al-Qaeda leadership and toppled the Taliban from their perch in Kabul, we made the fateful decision to stick around. Exactly why never has been clear. Was it to nation build and state build? To turn Afghanistan into a beacon of modern democracy in a backward region -- a match to Iraq in the Middle East? Was an integral part of that project a desire to secure the rights of Afghan women? Was the purpose to extend the reach of American military bases deep into Central Asia so as better to deal with whomever or whatever might become hostile to the United States and its clients?
The only answer we received was that it was critical to American domestic security that we preclude even the remote possibility that another salafist regime might take power in Afghanistan which could once again accommodate Islamist terrorists bent on striking the United States. There was a certain logic to this position -- if the measure of security was zero threat. It was on those grounds, even though never fully or explicitly articulated, that we set the goal of extirpating the Taliban as a political force -- across the Durand Line as well as in Afghanistan proper. They posed an indirect threat, not a direct one. After all, no Taliban has killed a single Westerner outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the specter of another 9/11 still stigmatized them as the enemy that had to be liquidated. This was the justification for Obama's two-phase escalation since January 2009. This was the justification for experimenting with David Petraeus' fashionable new-old COIN strategies. This was the justification for extending the war into Pakistan, for turning the vise on the Pakistani leadership, for alienating them so completely as to make them hostile to the Washington and all its works. This was the justification for sowing the seeds of civil war in this nuclear armed country. This was the justification for subordinating our nuclear concerns to the will-o'-wisp adventure in the Hindu Kush and other Afghan badlands searching for the Holy Grail of absolute security.
Now we are told by Joe Biden that the Taliban were never the enemy. I guess that we have been rampaging around the place for 9 years, killing and being killed, wasting several hundred billion dollars, to crush a different enemy. Who? Hardcore Soviet revanchists? The opium cartel growers association? This deceitful nonsense is apiece with the earlier witless formulation that "we'll know success when we see it." That our leaders believe, rightly, that they can get away with such inane remarks on an issue of such saliency is the most telling commentary on the comatose state of public discourse nowadays. The question now is: will we know failure when we see? The answer is 'no' since success or failure depends on having a clear sense of what you're trying to do. We don't have one.
The bitter truth is that the Obama administration foreign policy team is witless about too many things. There is a strong case to made that it is not competent to be the custodian of the nation's welfare in the larger world; nor is it honest about its shortcomings. In both senses, they are irresponsible. The White House in particular assays everything in terms of two simple criteria: is it spinnable?; will it help Barack Obama get reelected? Even on that score, they can't get their story straight. One day, Mr. Panetta affirms that the combat mission will end in 2013 -- earlier than previously announced. The next day General Petraeus corrects him in assuring us that nothing has changed. That's true if the reference of what hasn't changed had been to the fecklessness of the Obama cohort -- and its inability to think or act coherently.
The alternatives offer no greater comfort. They vow to bomb Iran within days of being seated in the Oval Office. Mr. Obama too may take us into a war with Iran -- out of immaturity and fatuousness.