Long before the surge strategy, Stephen Biddle wrote a brilliant essay for Foreign Affairs titled “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon.” He argued that the fighting in Iraq was best understood as a communal conflict, and that the United States needed to act as honest broker between the different factions rather than as the sponsor of a sectarian Shia-dominated state. This insight contributed to the emergence of the Sunni Awakening, a movement of former insurgents who chose partnership with U.S. forces over a fruitless war. Though sectarian tensions remain, Biddle’s approach proved invaluable. In the years since, Biddle has continued to make invaluable contributions to the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment, Biddle is advising General Stanley McChrystal, the highly-regarded commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. His excellent essay in The American Interest on “the difficult case for war in Afghanistan” offers valuable insight into what folks at the highest levels are thinking these days. And I have to say, the message is pretty discouraging.
The best policy, therefore, is to defend an expensive, risky, potentially unpopular war with an argument that is sound but ultimately indirect and a close call on the merits. And this will need to be done by the leader of a divided party in the face of rising antiwar sentiment and a host of competing demands, political and financial. Barack Obama is a perhaps uniquely skilled political communicator, and his policy for Afghanistan is the right one. But even the right policy for Afghanistan is going to be a very hard sell indeed.
A friend of mine who’s been closely involved in developing U.S. policy in Afghanistan recently said that while President Bush may have followed the wrong policies in Afghanistan, he was deeply invested in the success of the mission. Now, in contrast, President Obama has embraced, perhaps reluctantly, the right set of policies, and yet he seems far less invested.