03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

D-Day For The U.S. In Afghanistan: Realism Vs. Idealism

What Obama seems to have discovered is that this is no longer the war that began eight years ago. That war was an act of retribution and prevention. But now who are we punishing? What are we preventing? The old narrative is broken. --Hendrik Hertzberg, "The Fifth War," November 30 The New Yorker

Decades ago -- at Davidson College -- I cut my teeth in the study of international politics when reading two wise men: George F. Kennan in American Diplomacy: 1900-1950; and Hans J. Morgenthau in Politics Among Nations. Both men were considered to be "realists" in contrast to "idealists" in their approach. To briefly quote from their works:

Kennan wrote sixty years ago that:

Perhaps there can be such a thing as 'victory' in a battle, whereas in war there can be only the achievement or non-achievement of your objectives. [W]here your objectives are moral and ideological ones and run to changing the attitudes and traditions of an entire people or the personality of a regime, then victory is probably something not to be achieved...

In the introduction to his great work on the struggle for power and peace -- first published in 1948 -- Morgenthau articulated a "realist theory of international politics" that took issue with the "legalistic-moralistic approach" to foreign policy: "Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible..."

With these works as my points of light, I come down on the side of restraint -- that is,
cutting back on resources committed -- to fighting the Taliban and upholding the Karzai government in Afghanistan. I am against anything approaching an "all in" strategy for the United States, and favor a retrenchment in objectives with a smaller military footprint that relies upon special forces and Predator drones operating in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal would be to crush the central leadership of Al Qaeda, there, and to weaken the Taliban in Pakistan. I know the substantial objections to such a course, but am not persuaded.

A sound set of skeptical questions were recently posed by Rick Hertzberg in The New Yorker that mirror some key concerns attributed to "the questioner-in-chief," Vice President Biden:

  • Will a bigger, longer, and bloodier occupation of Afghanistan advance or retard the ultimate aim of discouraging Islamist terrorism?
  • Will adding American troops -- at a million dollars a year per soldier -- encourage Afghans to fight for themselves or prompt them to leave the fighting to us?
  • Can Afghanistan's discredited, corrupt, government somehow be remade?
  • Would even forty thousand (or eighty thousand) additional troops suffice for anything resembling the ambitious nation-building program -- requiring defeat of the counterinsurgency -- that our top military commander in the field has proposed? (I have yet to meet a general who will state that he cannot "win" when provided with the full number of additional troops he requested, all along the way.)
  • Given the long-term commitment required to defeat such insurgencies, is the voluntary association of democracies in NATO capable of sustaining a 20-30 years war?
  • Does the United States -- a decentralized populist democracy struggling with economic decline and political gridlock -- have that capacity?

To paraphrase a front-page article in The Washington Post of today--"New Afghan strategy expected to highlight possibilities, limits of nation-building": Focusing new resources on training Afghan security forces and shoring up the central government is an approach certain to illustrate the outer limits -- not the possibilities -- of nation-building. Our country has at best a mixed record when it comes to establishing functional, stable governments in countries wrecked by war. The efforts have been long and costly, tangible results hard to measure, and support for a prolonged involvement very difficult to maintain.

Finally, it troubles me that President Obama is to give his big speech at West Point, because it only increases the pressure to pledge to the armed forces he will not permit an eventual end to the war that might prove their lives were lost in vain over eight years-plus as part of "the great game." Significantly, the Commander-in-Chief has already addressed the troops at Osan Air Base in South Korea, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Not to mention speaking at the memorial at Fort Hood; and -- commendably -- welcoming home the remains of troops at Dover Air Force Base. These are ties that bind, and dragoon.

The clock cannot be turned back to 2001, not with 100,000 troops, not with 200,000 troops. No matter how explicit we are about objectives or time frame for action or benchmarks for the Afghans. Pray tell, what would constitute "proof of concept"? How does the "clear and hold" part of the strategy convert to "build and transfer"? Can the United States reasonably expect to turn things around? Alas, in the process it will have become Obama's war and make it much harder for him to let go.

The security of the United States depends upon a "stable" Afghanistan -- as Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made the case for his country? I think not. And I hope not.