The headache on the horizon



Despite the laserlike focus on President Obama's impending Capitol Hill speech on health care, the war in Afghanistan may soon prove to be far more consequential, in terms of both policy and politics. Here's an expanded and updated version of my weekend print column:

My head hurts. At first I thought it was a sinus thing, or perhaps the start of a head cold. But it’s actually the pain of thinking about Afghanistan. After much deliberation, I have finally come up with a rock-solid stance that I can support 100 percent:

It’s nuts for us to stay, and it’s nuts for us to go. It’s nuts for us to send more troops, and it’s nuts for us to phase them out.

Granted, I have now violated the first rule of contemporary punditry, which requires that, in all circumstances, we shall declare ourselves inflexibly pro or con. Guilty as charged. But I invite you to ponder Afghanistan, to weigh the factual against the counterfactual, and see how it feels.

I’d bet that Barack Obama’s team is already raiding the medicine cabinet. As a domestic political headache, Afghanistan has the potential to be far worse in the long run than the current flap over health care reform.

For instance, consider what could happen if we stay – if, as expected, Obama soon says yes to the U.S. military’s reportedly imminent request for more troops, perhaps by upping the current 68,000 to roughly 100,000 or more. The Afghan people might begin to view us as occupiers. The violent extremists could exploit that as a propaganda tool, stoking anti-western sentiment in neighboring Pakistan – and that doesn’t seem like an attractive scenario, given the fact that Pakistan has nukes.

But think about what might happen if we go. The jihadists in Pakistan could exploit our pullout as a propaganda opportunity to paint us as weak. They’d likely feel emboldened to wreak more havoc - and that doesn’t seem like an attractive scenario, given the fact that Pakistan has nukes.

So maybe we should stay, and indeed double down on our presence. But the problem is that we’re risking soldiers’ lives to shore up a rampantly corrupt, legitimacy-challenged regime that may well have stolen the August election, given the fact that it magically extracted landslide vote tallies out of phony polling places (the U.N. is already talking about "clear and convincing evidence of fraud"). And President Hamid Karzai’s running mate is an accused drug dealer, for Pete’s sake. We’re launching a nation-building project in a tribal backwater that has confounded empires for centuries; in terms of civic infrastructure, Afghanistan makes Iraq look like a model democracy designed by the League of Women Voters.

So maybe we should go. Phase out the troop presence, position ourselves offshore, and simply hit the bad guys with cruise missiles and drones. After all, why commit to a ground war in Afghanistan when al Qaeda can simply ensconce itself elsewhere – in places such as Somalia? But wait, how are we supposed to accurately hit the bad guys with cruise missiles and drones if we don't have solid ground intelligence from our own people? If we tried to fight this war from a distance, we'd just as likely kill a lot more of the civilians whose hearts and minds we seek to win. Heck, even with our current presence, a NATO air strike last week killed some civilians (80 people overall), thus prompting an investigation.

So if we scale back in Afghanistan, we'd probably make NATO's job even harder, and if we wind up undercutting NATO (which has 39,000 troops in harm's way), maybe the vacuum in the region would be filled by Russia or China.

And, politically speaking, if Obama was to pull back, he’d risk undercutting his own credibility. After all, he campaigned last year on the premise that Afghanistan was the just war, and earlier this summer he called it a "war of necessity." But the problem is that, the longer he persists, the more he risks alienating his core supporters; according to a new CNN poll, 74 percent of Democrats (as well as 57 percent of independents) are now opposed to the war. Apparently they’d prefer that Obama pull a flip-flop and renege on his campaign promise.

But if Obama did that, most Republicans would roast him. The irony is that right now, at least with respect to Afghanistan, they happen to be his biggest fans. Conservative commentator Rich Lowry is urging Obama to show "perseverance and courage," just like...George W. Bush. Yep, Lowry thinks that Obama would do well to mimic these "Bushian qualities," and to map a deeper Afghanistan commitment by asking himself, "What would Bush do?" (Well, actually, we already know what Bush did do in Afghanistan. He gave it short shrift as he marched off to fight the wrong war in the wrong country.) 

Meanwhile, conservative pundit-provocateur William Kristol, of all people, is actually cheering for Obama to broaden the war effort, and he’s assailing all the doves as defeatists. Wait...Bill Kristol has Obama’s back? That should tell you plenty about the president’s current political quandary; that's like Brutus pledging his support to Caesar.

Right now, Obama's prime allies on Afghanistan are basically the same people who yearn to strangle his presidency in year one. I assume they’ll start questioning Obama’s war resolve and success metrics (in other words, his commander-in-chief credentials) during the runup to the 2012 campaign.

But forget the GOP political factor; there are sound moral reasons for staying in Afghanistan. Have we not pledged to defend the Afghan people whom we previously abandoned? Go rent the movie Charlie Wilson’s War; after we surreptitiously helped the locals defeat the Soviet army during the ‘80s, we just walked away. And that simply made it easier for the bad guys to take up residence.

And now we want to stop the bad guys from doing it again. But hang on: Are we talking about five years, 10 years, or 20? When Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs was hit with that question the other day, he replied: "I don't think it (victory) will take close to forever, but I don't know what year that would be."

By what measure can we guarantee that the country will be permanently inhospitable to al Qaeda? Is that our definition of “victory,” and how can we ever know whether it has been achieved? Richard Holbrooke, the president’s envoy to Afghanistan, addressed those kinds of questions last month, and here’s what he came up with:

"The specific goal of the United States is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan…We’ll know it when we see it."
It’s not very comforting to hear Holbrooke conjure, as a victory metric, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's thumbnail criteria for defining obscenity. What’s next, General William Westmoreland’s Vietnam incantation about "light at the end of the tunnel"? Maybe Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and current foreign affairs specialist, is correct when he warns that Obama is risking all his political capital by committing the nation to a wider war in Afghanistan:

"Even if he (makes a persuasive case for war), he will then spend the rest of his presidency - as the bills mount and the body count climbs - defending and reaffirming...As was the case with Harry Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, and Bush in Iraq, war will hold his presidency hostage."

Or maybe that wouldn't happen, maybe the alternative (leaving) is worse. Maybe we should be swayed by the security experts who want us to stay because they see Afghanistan as "salvageable," although that hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement. No wonder my head hurts. It’s time to take an Advil, kick back, play my iPod - but wait, there’s no escape. Here comes a classic tune by The Clash:
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay, it will be double...
So you gotta let me know,
Should I stay or should I go?