Politics & Policy

Afghanistan Agonistes

Obama needs to shake free of his past rhetoric, commit to our mission in Afghanistan, and give Petraeus a chance to do the job he has taken on.

The growing consensus is that the United States and its NATO allies cannot prevail in their aim of creating a stable constitutional government in Afghanistan, free of radical Taliban insurrectionists who will facilitate terrorism beyond their borders and seek to reinstitute their medieval theocracy.

We need to calm down and take a deep breath. Here are ten considerations that suggest that Afghanistan is hardly lost.

1. General Petraeus. By all accounts he is an historic figure. Take his willingness to step down from Centcom, after achieving global fame, only to enter into the Inferno of Afghanistan, at a time when he has seen nonstop service and dealt with health issues — and when there is not much that can be added to his reputation but a great deal that might diminish it in Afghanistan.

All that is in marked contrast, for example, to the 2003 behavior of Gen. Tommy Franks, who did the opposite: He retired abruptly after basking in the glow of a three-week victory — even as he saw the insurgency brewing — seemingly in order to capitalize on his newfound and transitory fame. Petraeus’s moral capital and past successes are worth a great deal, here and abroad, and bring a new dimension to the struggle — even though he will be apparently working with diplomatic personnel quite unlike the gifted and selfless Ryan Crocker.

Remember, he surged in Iraq without the sort of wide-scale criticism over his rules of engagement that has been directed at current counterinsurgency methods in Afghanistan. Again, for a national icon to willingly step down into the fray, when conventional wisdom is writing Afghanistan off, and under the aegis of former senators — Biden, Clinton, Obama — who deprecated his efforts when he most needed public support is nothing short of heroic. And that too will help for a while in rallying military and civilian opinion behind the effort.

2. The mission. President Obama needs to remind America of the mission. We seek to foster a stable constitutional system in Afghanistan that will keep radical Islamists from offering sanctuary to international terrorists. That is our main objective. Shutting down the opium industry, fostering a civil society that does not butcher its own, and enlisting the support of Pakistan to stop terrorism — all these are important corollaries and aid our objective, but are ipsis factis not the main reason why we are fighting in Afghanistan. For nearly a decade, those on the left have simply defined Afghanistan as not Iraq and left it at that — without telling us why in fact they would fight the “good war.” Now they must do so without invoking Bush or Iraq: We need to hear from the president what Afghanistan is, rather than what it is not.

3. Losses. We have suffered tragic deaths, but they must be seen through the prism of other, far more lethal and difficult conflicts. Through 2007, America had lost cumulatively about the same number of troops in Afghanistan that we lost in just that one year in Iraq. Indeed, in the single year 2004 — three years after the war began in Afghanistan — America had lost a total of 52 soldiers; in contrast, in 2006, similarly three years after the commencement of the Iraq war, 822 were killed in Iraq — a figure 15 times higher. The total American fatalities in nearly nine years are 1,130 — less than 2 percent of those lost in Vietnam. Afghanistan is no Iraq, much less a Vietnam. In a war nearly a decade long, the United States has been remarkably adept in not losing its soldiers.

4. Karzai in perspective. Yes, the Karzai government is probably corrupt. But not long ago, during the relative quiet of the mid-2000s, we openly wondered of Iraq, “Where is the Iraqi Karzai?” — as if Iraq might yet be salvaged if only we had an ally of the sort we counted on in Kabul. Apparently that is why, in 2004, the Liberty Medal — past recipients include the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Colin Powell, and Kofi Annan — was bestowed upon Hamid Karzai. He cannot have been so good in 2004 only to suddenly have become so bad in 2010. In fact, he is mostly what he always was, an Afghan pragmatist who follows his own perceptions of relative American strength, especially the degree to which we seem to be winning or losing. Meanwhile, the Taliban has been out of power for nearly nine years, and most Afghans have gotten used to its not being around.

5. Afghanistan was not always so. We hear that the country has always been ungovernable. But the British achieved their aims between 1878 and 1919 in preventing chaos. Russia’s disaster is often evoked, but its decade-long misadventure brought on an odd alliance among China, Pakistan, most of the Arab world, and the United States, which all poured in supplies and in some cases manpower to aid the Taliban. Nothing analogous to all that is now happening. The present planned surge of 30,000 alone is probably three times larger than the Taliban’s insurgent forces, which have little international support. Afghanistan for the half-century between 1919 and 1973 was sustainable, when a decentralized constitutional monarchy made it as stable as any society in that rather rough region. Just as Iraq is a more sane place than soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, so too Afghanistan can be stable in comparison to nuclear Pakistan — explaining why both those neighbors are to varying degrees invested in seeing us not succeed in either country.

6. Eye off the ball? Nor does the conventional charge that we “took our eye off the ball” quite explain the upsurge in violence. Afghanistan was relatively quiet when Iraq was most violent and was drawing in enormous amounts of our money and manpower; it oddly started to heat up when Iraq slowly began to quiet down. We forget that radical Islamists have mostly lost in Iraq. Apparently, however, that setback has rallied the Taliban and discouraged us, the winners — when the opposite should have been more likely. At some point, historians will remark that the United States succeeded in preventing another 9/11-like attack for nearly a decade when that was once thought impossible (e.g., “Not if, but when”), deposed a murderous regime in Iraq and offered its people a real chance of consensual government, and rid Afghanistan of a barbaric regime that fostered deadly international terrorism. We are doing well, then, on two fronts, and it would be a mistake to give up on the third.

7. Executive inconsistency. President Obama campaigned on the good-war/bad-war false dichotomy, and so in 2009 got caught off guard. Indeed, by late 2007, candidate Obama was promising that he would end Bush’s unnecessary war and reenergize the necessary effort in Afghanistan — approved by the UN and NATO and directed against many of the architects of 9/11. Apparently, Obama assumed as president that Afghanistan would stay quiet and that Iraq was lost. Suddenly, reality turned his campaign rhetoric upside down, as Obama could no longer be a peace icon by ending the supposedly bad Iraq war, but instead had to step up and assume a Churchillian persona to keep his promises to focus on Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. As a senator seeking to realize his presidential hopes, Obama used fierce antiwar rhetoric about the doomed nature of the surge and about General Petraeus as a naïve proponent of the impossible. Obama must now, as president, bring in that same Petraeus to surge in Afghanistan. All these paradoxes, along with artificial deadlines for withdrawal, convey the sense that the commander-in-chief is not fully committed to a successful Afghan strategy. The window for blaming Bush for Afghanistan has long been closed, and we will do far better when the administration accepts this.

8. Diplomatic mess. The result of all this confusion has been 18 months of loud rhetoric about “fixing” Afghanistan, as a disengaged president has outsourced the war to a number of different interests and dithered both on adopting a strategy and on consulting with General McChrystal, his own appointee as ground-forces commander in Afghanistan. During the Bush administration, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad worked well with both our senior military command and the Afghan government; they brought confidence to our diplomatic mission in Kabul and the region at large. In contrast, our current ambassador, General Eikenberry, and Obama’s “special representative,” Richard Holbrooke, have alienated both. Should we find one — and only one — diplomat who can partner with both General Petraeus and President Karzai, things will improve.

9. Obama’s advantages. The fact is that Obama enjoys several advantages that George W. Bush did not have. The Left, for all its sniping, will not so easily sacrifice its agenda on the altar of antiwar rhetoric. So we will see no “General Betray Us” ads or acrimonious confirmation hearings on Afghan appointments. IEDs in Afghanistan will no longer be on the front pages of our newspapers. It is also a truism that Democratic commanders-in-chief are more immune from wartime criticism of the sort that can become hysterical against Republican presidents. Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ (for a time), and Clinton were all seen as reluctant warriors in a way Nixon and the Bushes were not.

In short, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Time and Newsweek, the major networks, and PBS will not cover Afghanistan in the manner they did Iraq. Why endanger cap-and-trade or amnesty for illegal aliens by emphasizing the weekly body count, when the media know well that such attention is an effective mechanism for destroying a presidency? All of that translates into a greater unity and empathy for the problems we face in Afghanistan.

10. We have no choice but victory. A failure in Afghanistan will reenergize radical Islam, as did the Soviet defeat, with implications that will affect everything from the current quiet in Iraq and the nuclearization of Iran to the behavior of Turkey, and the chances of more terrorist attacks within the United States. Failed invasions are more grievous even than lost battles. Those who think we can just leave Afghanistan and call it quits are sorely mistaken. Fairly or not, we are well beyond that: Either we stabilize the country, with all the accruing advantages from that achievement, or we withdraw in defeat and expect to reap a bitter harvest from that defeat. 

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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