Some weeks ago Thomas Friedman posed a question: “How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things—whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit—are ‘off the table’?” They are off the table, he added, in large part because they have “been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money.”
He’s right, if not original, and the problem to which he points does damage in several ways. One is to disorganize our stock of knowledge about public policy, leading many citizens to the erroneous conclusion that the sub-optimal performance of our government is just a series of unrelated and unlucky failures. We have, in short, been disconnected from common sense—from an awareness of how the parts of public policy relate to one another, and from an awareness of their common cause, a sickness born of too much money in all the wrong places. Call it plutosis.
We often seem disconnected from an integrated sense of causation in foreign policy, too, and in the critical nexus between what we label domestic and foreign—what used to be called “statecraft.” Contrary to common usage, statecraft is not a synonym for diplomacy. It is the set of political skills that integrates all aspects and assets of state power into a national strategy. A question that arises from a statecraft perspective might be: “How often can we fail to deal adequately with core domestic policy issues before it becomes a national security liability?” Since our political or media elite rarely poses such questions, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the President say on December 1:
I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” Over the past several years, we have lost that balance, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. . . . [W]e simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars. . . . Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.
(For a moment there, I thought President Obama, or his speechwriter, might have been reading the “Nation-Building in America” feature the AI has been running for over a year.)
There are even some signs that the President has taken the resuscitation of statecraft and policy connectedness beyond the level of rhetoric. It was, for example, a genuine advance for the Administration to stress the integration of what happens on the Afghan side of the Durand Line with what happens on the Pakistani side. But there is still room for improvement: One detects little understanding of how Af-Pak, as they call it, connects to the Iran and Iraq portfolios, and how the three need to be conceived of as a single problem set. They must be so conceived because the reputation of American power and prudential judgment is seamlessly intertwined with them all in the eyes of regional actors, friend and foe alike. As the British diplomat and adventurer Rory Stewart has put it: “[T]he foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty.”1
More’s the pity, therefore, that the Administration has devoted minimum feasible attention to Iraq, and seems not to factor in what could go wrong there—or, for that matter, what could go even more right—into how it thinks about Afghanistan, Iran and the region beyond. Even in the run-up to the coming March elections in Iraq, its body language is a shrug out the door, and its assumption seems to be that things won’t get either much better or much worse anytime soon. That’s a risky assumption, particularly on the downside, given what the Iraqi election commission has just done, as of this writing, in banning 550 mostly Sunni politicians from the ballot. Surprises like that or not, Iraq is still an important country whose circumstances will impinge on U.S. interests in and beyond the region in a significant way. A deterioration of security and forward motion in Iraq over the next two or three years could harm U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere both literally and in terms of the net reputation of American power. As Douglas Ollivant and Eric Chewning have pointed out in this issue, we need to think about Iraq not in terms of sunken costs but future opportunities.
There is another Iraq connection, too. The Obama Administration can afford to take a detached attitude to Iraq because its predecessor redeemed many of its own mistakes with a “surge” that worked, a surge that then-Senator Obama opposed. If Iraq looked today anything like it looked in 2006–07, the President would not have been able to indulge in a 94-day re-review of Afghanistan, and his options would have been vastly more constrained.
A second and more consequential illustration of disconnected thinking concerns Afghanistan and Iran. The political reality is that, sometime before the end of his term, President Obama may need to choose which problem to prioritize, and specifically which should receive a dose of American military power. If the President fails to recognize the need for a choice, he may choose wrongly by default. How so?
The consequences of losing the war in Afghanistan would not be trivial, but it would not be the end of the world either. Losing would undermine NATO, cause other local allies to devalue the currency of American security promises, and in these and other ways aid the projects of assorted salafi fanatics. But we have recovered from battlefield frustrations before; NATO needs a conceptual rebirth anyway that won’t come from business as usual; most of our regional partners have nowhere else to go; and our enemies are not strong enough to do to us even a fraction of what they would if only they could. Moreover, other parties—China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, for example—have a stake in what happens in Afghanistan. A U.S. withdrawal would not summon a howling geostrategic void that would cancel out their counterbalancing exertions. In this case, as in many others, we really are not as “indispensable” as all that.
The consequences of an Iranian nuclear breakout, by comparison, are genuinely frightening, more dangerous than anything that could happen in Afghanistan, or even in Pakistan. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a game-changer, in part because deterrence as it worked during the Cold War cannot be readily superimposed on the Middle East.2 An Iranian nuclear breakout would destroy the non-proliferation regime and, even in the absence of any precipitous Iranian nuclear weapons use, would probably catalyze further regional proliferation.3 A multi-sided nuclear arms race featuring not secure second-strike forces but small, unsophisticated arsenals virtually begging to be preempted makes for a crisis- and accident-prone situation. Before very long a nuclear exchange in the region would be a better than even bet.
But why does this prospect, however one rates its probability, mandate a choice between Iran and Afghanistan? Because to deploy U.S. diplomacy to stop an Iranian nuclear breakout requires a credible U.S. military option to back it up—a proposition that the Obama Administration as well as its predecessor endorses. But if we are still engaged in combat in Afghanistan when the time comes to decide on Iran, we won’t have such an option because even as relatively gentle a policy choice as a naval blockade would be politically tantamount to the Administration’s starting a second war. For political reasons, this Democratic Administration cannot, or at any rate, will not do that, and the Iranian leadership knows it.
How do they know it? They watched the pressures work on the President’s decision on the Afghan war. It was strategically unfortunate, but politically necessary, for him to simultaneously add troops to the theater to prevent a military disaster and announce a trigger for withdrawal. He did this in consecutive sentences, no less, of his December 1 West Point speech, giving rise to the widespread impression that his strategy was incoherent.4 But the President had to support General Stanley McChrystal or else wring the authority out of the battlefield commander he himself had appointed only nine months earlier. Failing to approve McChrystal’s request, or most of it, would not only have knocked the wind out of the entire war effort, it would also have embarrassed our NATO allies and contradicted the President’s own insistence that Afghanistan is a war of necessity rather than choice. He had to throw down the withdrawal date at the same time, however, not just to get the Afghan government to take him seriously, as he explained, but also because there are not enough supportive Republicans to make up for the scores of congressional Democrats who otherwise would have cursed him for escalating an already unpopular war.
The political logic notwithstanding, the President’s decision is problematic. The December 1 escalation announcement has probably reduced the longevity of American political support for the war effort. Worse, laying down a withdrawal date for July of next year, no matter how quickly and skillfully Secretaries Gates and Clinton tried to conditionalize the President’s vow after the fact, sent all the wrong signals outside of the Democratic Party. It told the Taliban leadership that all it needed to prevail was patience. Despite Obama’s demand on Pakistan that “we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear”, the withdrawal clause removed what little incentive Islamabad had to risk life, limb and reputation for the long term attacking the Quetta shura or Taliban sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It told the Saudis, Israelis, Syrians, Russians, North Koreans and others a great deal, too, about the political realities and personal verve behind this presidency. And, to return to the main point, it told the mullahs of Tehran and Qom all they need to know, too. Whether he realized it or not, when President Obama told the nation and the world his decisions about the Af-Pak portfolio, he also constrained his own room for maneuver on Iran.
Now, as those who live long enough know, foregone conclusions rarely justify themselves. Those who disparage the Obama Administration and do not wish it well are sure that the President is at heart a pacifist and an appeaser. The President’s brilliant Nobel Prize acceptance speech has not persuaded many of them otherwise. They believe the Administration will never use force against Iran, despite its declaratory policy of “prevention”, whether we are still fighting in Afghanistan or not. I am not so sure. The closer Iran comes to a nuclear breakout, the more the strategic implications will concentrate minds in Washington, even those not temperamentally disposed toward the use of force.
Of course, it may be that a need to choose will not arise. Perhaps it’s true, as the Administration’s spin in early January suggested, that an 18- to 24-month timeline for a day of reckoning has been pushed out by a year or two (or maybe three) thanks to a combination of Iranian technical problems, domestic instability, surgical sabotage and Israeli forbearance.5 Maybe the Iranian regime won’t last long enough to get its hands on nukes. Maybe still to be precisely defined sanctions will encourage regime change (though, for the little we know, they’re just as likely to retard it). Maybe a successor regime, if there is one, won’t pursue nuclear weapons (though we don’t know that either). And if sanctions don’t do the trick one way or another, economic warfare options we have only begun to explore might obviate any need to issue military ultimatums, let alone to back one of them up.
Hope, however, is not a policy, so it would be foolish to assume that we can dodge a do-or-die decision over Iran. In any event, we will still need a threat of force to gird any potentially successful diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran and, to repeat, if we are still fighting in Afghanistan we won’t have it. It therefore ought to be a high priority to disentangle the timelines of the Af-Pak and Iranian portfolios. But how?
The United States need not be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan before the moment of truth arrives, if it arrives, with Iran. It merely needs for the war either to have stopped or be reduced to off-the-front-page dimensions, if possible in a way that the current perception of Taliban ascendancy is reversed. After all, there is nothing to be gained entering a showdown with the mullahs in Tehran two or three years hence in the reflected glare of futility or outright failure in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, adding 30,000 troops during 2010, even on top of the approximately 20,000 added during 2009, is highly unlikely to achieve this, particularly if the President really means to start withdrawing troops beginning in July 2011. While maintaining relative stasis in Afghanistan is not all that difficult—as proved by the situation from early 2002 to mid 2007—changing the situation for the better, even well short of any reasonable definition of “victory”, is damn hard. It is true, as the President said in December, that the Taliban are not very popular in Afghanistan—so no, this is not “another Vietnam.” It is true, too, that the Taliban is a Pashtun movement with little purchase in Tajik, Uzbek and especially Hazara-inhabited parts of the country. And the movement is also riven by personal, pseudo-theological and tribal rivalries.6 But set next to those advantages are five daunting problems, any one of which should arrest the attention of a would-be optimist.
First, there is no “enemy of our enemy” that can be readily mobilized to fight the Taliban in our stead, and having such local allies has often been the key to American military successes in the past.7 The Northern Alliance cannot be revived, the determination of isolated villages to fight the Taliban is not enough, and outsiders cannot readily manipulate the Pashtun tribes to make enough of them loyal enough to a U.S.-supported government in Kabul to matter. There are today multiple versions of jihadi insurgency in Afghanistan, depending on which groups lead them and the degree of support they receive from across the Durand Line. All versions seek and find support from non-jihadi sectors of Pashtun society that simply oppose foreign garrisons on Pashtun soil. It’s tempting to think we can peel off this third element and turn it against the others, but that is vastly easier said than done, especially with the scant political-cultural intelligence we have on Afghanistan.8 We may be able to gain their neutrality if we try long and hard enough, but that is a far cry from getting them to fight other Pashtuns.
Second, our local ally lacks legitimacy. This is a complex matter, one not reducible to broad-brush accusations that the Karzai Administration is “corrupt.” It is corrupt, even by local standards, but these accusations are hurled as though corruption in all societies and across all times is essentially the same, a demonstration of cultural illiteracy so vast as to beggar the imagination of anthropology undergraduates everywhere—as Lawrence Rosen explains above. And they are hurled despite the obvious fact that we are pouring billions of dollars into a country without the capacity to absorb them, as though we are blameless for any consequences.9 The legitimacy question is key, because it shapes the context of the training effort that U.S. policy now vows to deepen and accelerate. Teaching someone how to use a weapon is the easy part. The hard part is getting someone to risk his life to shoot at the right targets, but the loyalty owed to legitimacy cannot be taught. And there really is something, too, to the concern that the more foreign troops there are on the ground in Afghanistan, the more illegitimate those who invited and depend on them—Messrs. Karzai and friends—will seem.
Third, we do not have the civilian expeditionary forces we need to hold up the non-military side of our counterinsurgency strategy. It is, there can be no doubt, a much better strategy than the one it replaced, but what good is a better playbook if you don’t have enough players to run the plays? And what good is a state-building project measured in decades set against a political timeline measured in months?
Fourth, the enemy has a sanctuary across the Durand Line. The Pakistani military remains unlikely to seek direct control over its side of the Pashtun tribal lands, though it has recently proved willing to contest the expansion of Taliban territory and murderous tactics. Even the Pakistani talent for faking interest in controlling the FATA has now been dispelled by the President’s feint for the exit in Afghanistan. A mere two weeks after the President’s December 1 speech, Pakistan was reportedly stonewalling on visas for U.S. personnel engaged in that and related efforts.10 This is what we call a signal.
Fifth, the Administration lacks domestic political support for a counterinsurgency campaign that could persist long enough and at sufficient levels of effort to make a difference. Successful counterinsurgencies take a decade at least and cost tens of billions of dollars—at least they do when they are financed by a spare-no-expense system like ours. The American people are speaking clearly about that proposition: They, like the President, would rather do nation-building at home.
So no, Afghanistan is not Vietnam, but, as in Vietnam, there is: no enemy of our enemy to deploy; no trustworthy and competent local ally; no adequate civilian counterinsurgency corps (the CORDS program in Vietnam came too late to turn the tide); no realistic way to get directly at a crucial enemy sanctuary; and not enough domestic political support to fight the war the long and the hard way. We have a situation, too, in which our theater commander and our Ambassador in Kabul have been locked in public dispute about troop levels and tactics (echoes of William Westmoreland and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.). Afghanistan is not Vietnam, to be sure, but it often seems to rhyme with it. Perhaps that is why President Obama’s December 1 speech, for all the differences between Vietnam then and Afghanistan now, struck me as the functional equivalent of President Johnson’s speech of March 31, 1968. Both told the world, in so many words, that we are no longer in this thing to win it.
If the current approach is unlikely to reverse the perception of Taliban ascendancy, let alone to win the war by some reasonable definition of victory, what to do? There are only two other ways to achieve the effective end of the war before confronting a potential point of no return in the Iranian dilemma. One is to admit defeat and withdraw, which would probably result in a Taliban 2.0 regime in Kabul within six months. The other is to reverse the optic more quickly using an airpower-based approach.
The U.S. military, of course, has been using airpower in Afghanistan all along. Both the Air Force and the Navy have been involved, but only as adjuncts to a land-based operational concept. Airpower can do more than that. Notwithstanding the many times that the efficacy of airpower has been exaggerated, it can be brought to bear more quickly than can ground troops. It does not have to be garrisoned on Pashtun or even Afghan soil, and so is less corrosive politically. It does not risk the problem of narrow and vulnerable chokepoints into and out of the country through Pakistan; Afghanistan is a place where heavy-footed militaries can get trapped. It is probably less expensive, too. Assuming that the challenges involved with target acquisition can be solved—an intelligence matter at its core, and hardly a trivial challenge as things now stand, admittedly—airpower can also be employed in an utterly ruthless manner, which is, unfortunately, the best way, if not the only way, to really impress this enemy.
The purpose of using U.S. airpower to reverse the optic of Taliban ascendance, if it proves feasible, would not be to defeat the Taliban in some absolute sense. That would be impossible unless we kill or wound half the adult male Pashtuns in the country. No, the purpose would be to level the playing field in order to pursue new and broader political arrangements, to be blessed in due course by a Loya Jirga and protected as far as possible from without by a contact-group regional diplomacy. When this is done, we would not leave entirely; we would, however, shave and internationalize our profile to the extent possible, with the United States focusing on counterterrorism and the international community focusing on Afghan economic development.
A successful use of airpower in Afghanistan would have one additional merit: It would serve as a powerful object lesson to the mullahs in Tehran of what we can do when we have to. But of course, that thought only occurs if we integrate different issues into our line of vision, and if we integrate politics (including those of other countries) with our policy analysis. Some hopeful sparks from the President notwithstanding, we still don’t do this most of the time, any more often than we do statecraft in the larger sense. An airpower-based approach to ending the war in Afghanistan sooner rather than later seems never to have been on the table during the President’s 94 days of policy review, and it has little prospect of being put on the table, at least until the current approach is found to falter as 2010 wears on.
Alas, then, as with so much of American public policy these days, what might be the optimal approach in Afghanistan has not been seriously considered, putting us in a risky place should the Iran crisis mature before that fight is over. The reason in this case, presumably, is not a plague of lobbyists. It’s not clear just what it is. Perhaps the relentless multi-tasking induced and reinforced by our latest, best-integrated information technology paradoxically causes disconnectedness in its users, but that’s another story for another time. Whatever its source, foreign policy disconnectedness is bound to cause trouble. If we face simultaneous crises in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in a few years time, and find ourselves at wit’s end deciding what to do about it—a prospect not as far-fetched as I wish it were—there’s an even chance that the doyens of the disconnected won’t know how it happened.
1Stewart, “Afghanistan: What Could Work”, New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010. Emphasis added.?2There are many reasons why this is so; thinking otherwise constitutes a classic example of the lesser-included-case fallacy. See my “Will Saddam Get the Bomb?” National Review, May 13, 1991; “Culture and Deterrence”, Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, August 25, 2006; “Strategy on the Cheap”, The American Interest (November/December 2007); and Jewcentricity (Wiley, 2009), pp. 258–9. 3Note that the destruction of the non-proliferation regime is not the same as the destruction of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A vivid example of disconnectedness is the current effort to prepare for the May 2010 NPT Review Conference. It is an effort whose day-to-day labors are so mired in legal matters and competitive wordsmithing as to be completely separate from what is happening on the ground in Iran and North Korea. This amounts to thinking that one can affect the position of an object by manipulating its shadow.?4Anyone seeking a humorous angle on this, just to ease the pain of how serious it really is, may go to YouTube.com, type “Jimmy Durante and Eddie Jackson 1955”, and watch the first thirty seconds. No one could ask for a better comic take on the President’s stay/go approach—completely unintentional, of course, though it is.?5See David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. Sees an Opportunity to Press Iran on Nuclear Fuel”, New York Times, January 3, 2010.?6These points follow Stephen Biddle, “Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan”, The American Interest (July/August 2009). ?7Note James Kurth, “Pillars of the Next American Century”, The American Interest (November/December 2009).8See Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger and Paul D. Batchelor, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”, Center for a New American Security (January 2010). ?9It is also a bit strange to listen to Americans, who have just watched as Big Pharma and Big Insurance have distorted almost beyond recognition what might have been a worthy effort to address real problems in our health care system, accuse the Afghan government of corruption.?10Note Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Diplomats Face Backlash In Islamabad”, New York Times, December 17, 2009.