This week’s horrible news out of Afghanistan—NATO personnel shot inside the Interior Ministry, bombs going off and riots all over the country following reports of Korans being burned by US soldiers—brings doubts about President Obama’s carefully chosen Afghan strategy to a head.
The murders in the Interior Ministry were a shocking display of incapacity and incompetence; nothing could point more clearly to the challenges that face the President’s primary goal in Afghanistan of building Afghan military and police forces that can take the place of the US-led NATO mission as the US stands down.
It would be a mistake to read too much into this incident. That one bad apple got into the barrel does not mean that the whole barrel is rotten. And it is clear that the enemy forces in Afghanistan, however fanatical and backward they may be in many respects, are guided by a shrewd political intelligence that knows how to make the most of the strengths they have. Americans should not repeat the mistake we made at the time of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, when US opinion mistook a military victory for a strategic defeat. One attack in one ministry is not the same thing as a strategic collapse.
But as the administration pursues its four part strategy (surge, train, negotiate, withdraw) one notes that core elements of the plan are in deep disarray. The Afghan conundrum would be fiendishly difficult to solve under the best of circumstances, but the public announcement of a withdrawal date looks increasingly like the kind of grave mistake that makes success all but impossible.
With the announcement of a withdrawal date, the administration lost much of its ability to influence the behavior of two key parties in any settlement process. Convinced that the Americans were on the way out, Pakistan sees less and less reason to coordinate its policy with the US. It is sauve qui peut time now in the Hindu Kush, and Pakistan is doing what it can to retain as much influence as possible in Afghanistan once the US is gone. The prospect of a US withdrawal weakened Pakistanis who favor fuller cooperation in other ways as well; the reigning assumption in Islamabad at this point has to be that US aid levels will fall as the withdrawal goes forward, and so there is less and less disposition to make concessions for the sake of that aid. The withdrawal announcement diminished US influence in Pakistan at precisely the time President Obama’s war strategy needed that influence to grow.
The withdrawal announcement also minimized the impact of American military prowess on our enemies. Between drone strikes and field operations, the US has succeeded in putting the Taliban under immense military and psychological pressure. The withdrawal announcement, however, is a clear signal that the pressure will come to an end. An enemy who thinks that relentless military punishment will continue into an indefinite future is more willing to negotiate than one who thinks the pain will begin to decrease at a date not too far in the future. It is easier to hold out for a few months than to hold on into an unknown future.
Worse, the withdrawal date means that US influence steadily decreases with each passing day — regardless of what is happening on the battlefield. Everyone in Kabul feels an increasing need to prepare against the eventuality of American withdrawal; many are looking to open lines of communication with the enemy, and the rest are more focused than ever on stuffing their foreign bank accounts and planning their exit strategies. Nobody wants to be on the roof of the American embassy this time, fighting for seats on the last flights out.
The deadline announcement also weakened the President’s hand with respect to Iran. Iran has watched US forces leave Iraq; it believes they will soon leave Afghanistan as well. Many in Tehran are now convinced that the President is executing a strategic retreat from the Middle East and they are therefore disposed to discount his threats about the use of force should they proceed with their nuclear program. There is a sense in Tehran that this President will fold, and that Iran can win a major political victory by hanging tough and outlasting him. He will back down in the end, they believe, and so they are tempted to call what they are sure is a bluff. The louder they talk and the more intransigent they sound, the greater will be their political payoff when and if Washington folds: the President has unwittingly incentivized Iran to oppose him.
President Obama sought to get the best of both worlds by simultaneously staging a surge and proclaiming a withdrawal. He now confronts the increasing likelihood that his policy mix will end in the worst possible way, and under worse conditions he faces exactly the stark choice that he hoped to avoid. He wanted a quick but orderly withdrawal from a stable Afghanistan; he isn’t going to get that. Will he now drop the withdrawal deadline and commit American forces to stay the course until the job is done, or will he commit to withdrawal even if this means that the long war ends in defeat — and tempts Iran to turn the American retreat from the Middle East into a rout?
This administration has gotten a number of things right in its foreign policy, but its policies with respect to Israel/Palestinian issues and the Afghan War have not gone well. That is not entirely surprising; the alternatives in both cases also had drawbacks and neither problem can be easily solved. But the two failures combined have now seriously reduced the administration’s leverage in what could well be the supreme test of its statesmanship: the showdown with Iran.
Israelis (and for that matter their Sunni Arab neighbors) don’t have much faith that the White House can be trusted with the Iran file, while the Iranians begin to believe that the White House can be rolled. This combination makes Iran more aggressive and Israel more insecure; the White House ability to exert enough pressure on both to keep the peace has been undermined, perhaps fatally, by its two biggest policy failures.
The White House now faces a tough dilemma in Afghanistan. Does it rescind the commitment to withdraw and hunker down for an indefinite stay — angering peace Democrats at home and NATO partners abroad while committing itself more deeply to a complicated and tricky war? Or does it embrace defeat and get on with the business of American withdrawal as Afghanistan tumbles about its ears, the Taliban gain in power, and hardliners in both Islamabad and Tehran conclude that the US is a paper tiger?
VM thinks that hunkering down is the least bad option. We want the war to end as much as anybody, but you don’t get peace in a situation like this by making everyone think you are desperate for peace and on the brink of psychological if not military defeat. And we think that projecting a strong and determined US commitment to continuing presence in the Middle East is the best way to reduce the chances of both an Iranian nuclear weapon and a new war in the Gulf.
In any case, it will be easier to withdraw from Afghanistan after getting some kind of resolution of the Iranian issue. Iran is the priority, Afghanistan is the sideshow. To let a commitment to an Afghan withdrawal date weaken the administration’s hand elsewhere in the region would be to let the tail wag the dog.
President Obama would now be in a much stronger position if he hadn’t set a public timetable for withdrawal. Rescinding or suspending that deadline now causes problems for him, but those problems are less unmanageable than those that would arise if he leaves the timetable unchanged. One suspects that with few exceptions Republican leaders would rally behind him if he makes this change; perhaps the White House should reach out to get bipartisan support for a difficult but necessary adjustment.