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How the right war became the wrong war, and still is

There are no easy answers to the dilemma the US faces in Afghanistan, but one thing is clear: the focus now must be on how to ensure a responsible departure.

Back in 2009, when the US president, Barack Obama, announced his political compromise plan for a "surge" in Afghanistan, there were complaints from hawks and doves alike. And so it came as no surprise that he would hear the same complaints this week as he announced the "beginning of the end" of the surge.

Hawks complained that the president's targets of the imminent departure of 10,000 troops, followed by another 23,000 in a year's time, are too many too soon. Republican Senator John McCain, for example, expressed the concern that the withdrawal plan "poses an unnecessary risk to the hard won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made".

This view was echoed by Republican house speaker John Boehner, who announced that he would hold the president accountable for any setbacks resulting from the "pace and scope of the draw down".

Democrats, on the other hand, like minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, were "disappointed". Said Pelosi: "It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full draw down of US forces would happen sooner than the President laid out".

It was this very tension, between these two poles, that had led to the awkward surge compromise in the first place. During the 2008 presidential campaign Mr Obama had termed Afghanistan the necessary war, criticising former President George W Bush for starving it of resources while diverting his attention to the wrong war in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Mr Bush had made do with overthrowing the Taliban, holding an election, and declaring victory, Mr Obama said. While the US sent 150,000 troops into Iraq, Afghanistan was largely ignored (except for the fewer than 30,000 troops left behind). The Taliban regrouped, warlords and the narco-trade came back, and the mostly ineffectual government in Kabul became known as one of the most corrupt on the planet.

Upon assuming the presidency, Mr Obama made good on his commitment to upgrade the US involvement in Afghanistan - part of which was the surge of 33,000 additional troops. This increase brought the total troop presence to just over 100,000.

Facing stiff opposition from war-weary Democrats, the president attempted a compromise, announcing that troops would be withdrawn by July of 2011. When Republicans howled, the administration fudged on the meaning of the 2011 date, indicating that it would mark the end of the surge, while suggesting a 2014 date for the end of the US combat mission. Still no one was happy.

Republicans still appear to believe that this is a war that can be won militarily, and that all that is lacking is presidential resolve. They were, of course, largely silent during the first seven years of the conflict when the Bush administration starved Afghanistan of resources and attention. Now, like Mr McCain, they want more troops in order to fight decisive battles, despite the fact that the evidence points to a different reality.

One thousand US troops have died since the surge began, limited gains have been made on the ground (with the Taliban resurgent in parts of the country) and the government in Kabul is still best known for its corruption. And then there's the impact this war has had across the border in Pakistan.

As Washington intensified drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, pushed that country's military into bloody combat against Taliban elements who sought refuge in Pakistan, and ignored the India-Pakistan strategic competition in Afghanistan, it created unbearable pressures which have threatened Pakistan's stability.

None of this is recognised by the hawks, mind you. Nor are these sad realities dealt with by those who simply want an abrupt end to the US presence in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama is right in understanding that there can be no walking away from the mess Mr Bush left. It is not just a question of leaving a "failed state" where terrorism will flourish (as Senator McCain noted last week). And it's more than the matter of once again abandoning the Afghan people to a cruel and uncertain fate. It is also the regional instability that will follow a hasty departure - with India, Pakistan and Iran all in the mix.

The bottom line here is the need to recognise that the two poles of the current debate fall short. The war can't be won militarily and we just can't walk away. In this, again, the president is right. We must leave, and do so responsibly. But this can't be done on our own or by relying on the current government in Kabul.

Afghanistan can't and doesn't stand a chance of finding that stability on its own. What the US should, therefore, be working toward is a political solution that invests all of Afghanistan's neighbours in the creation of a regional security framework. The US might be loathe to convene such a standing security arrangement and to hand it off to the UN, but this option is to be weighed against the burden of continuing this war without end or the bitter consequences that would follow withdrawal.

This may not be the only answer to the dilemma the US faces, but it points in the direction of where the conversation ought to be - not whether more troops or no troops, or about the date certain to leave - but what to do between now and the end date to ensure that it is, in fact, a responsible departure.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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