Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

Stephen Biddle, author of the seminal “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon,” the Foreign Affairs essay that anticipated the “Anbar model” and helped constructively reframe the war in Iraq as a communal conflict, has been offering sobering thoughts on Afghanistan. In a March interview with Bernard Gwertzman, Biddle first argues that the U.S. has a real but limited interest in a secure and stable Afghanistan. The problem with a real but limited interest is that it is hard to calibrate how much we should do to achieve the underlying goal:

You can overspend and pay more than the stake is worth but then have a reasonable chance of securing it. Certainly the president believes that the military, especially since General Stanley A. McChrystal [former top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan] took command, has been proposing that. Or you can under-spend what the stake is worth, and get nothing at all.


When you try to do something to hit a reasonable centrism, you end up with a big risk of a more expensive version of nothing. When Obama took office, he was committed to reinforcement; whether he felt deeply about the Afghan war is hard to say, but he campaigned on the basis of Afghanistan being “the good war” and needing reinforcements. My suspicion is that he was ready to write a blank check to the military to do this job right and get it off his desk, right after he took his office. He had a quick review and then essentially gave the Afghanistan commander, General David McKiernan, what General McKiernan had asked for. The trouble was that General McKiernan had self-censored his troop request and asked for a lot less than what I think he felt he really needed (25,000-30,000), because he felt that was all the market would bear. He was misreading the market badly.

The inadequacy of the McKiernan request became quite apparent when McChrystal took over and when McChrystal then asked for what he thought was actually necessary, the White House felt like they had been whipsawed.

Earlier this month, Biddle shared an even gloomier prognosis with Gwertzman, in which he focused on the failures of the Afghan government:

Any imaginable deal that ends the war will legalize the Taliban as a political actor and give them some offices or ministries in a government. The only way you can prevent them from, for example, taking political control of Kandahar province or Helmand Province, is if you have internal Afghan domestic political competition that can limit the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan. It won’t work if the non-Taliban Afghan government continues to get increasingly predatory, as we’ve seen since 2005 or so. …

[T]he reason I use “predatory” rather than “corrupt” is that increasingly, it involves the taking of things, like people’s land. And that creates powerful sympathy for a Taliban that isn’t otherwise popular. If the Taliban had to compete with some sort of reasonably tolerable, non-Taliban alternative, they wouldn’t be able to take over provinces. The current government of Afghanistan is actively predatory on the population and getting worse over time. If we allow that to continue, we run the risk of making it impossible to prevent the Taliban from taking over far more than they could have taken over militarily on the battlefield.

Biddle ends on a sobering note:

Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point. Political settlement is the route out. And when I look at the kinds of decisions we are making about the post-2014 future, I grow very concerned that we are undermining the middle- and long-term prospects for settlement by trying to make the war cheaper in the short term.

Some of the people I respect most, including Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, have criticized Mitt Romney for having failed to address the war in Afghanistan in his address to the Republican National Convention. I suspect Biddle’s analysis offers a clue as to why Romney chose not to discuss Afghanistan: while I’m sure Romney does not share Clint Eastwood’s basic take on the conflict, I suspect he is more inclined to take Biddle’s view than Kristol’s.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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