Afghanistan: In it to win what? Plus: Politically, it's a loser if you win

The WSJ has an Op-Ed today from Kori Schake, which manages to be both enlightening and annoying at the same time. Ms. Schake, as the headline indicates, thinks President Obama should either “commit to Afghanistan or get out…We shouldn’t send Americans to fight or die if we’re not in it to win it.”

This a fairly sensible suggestion. No point in doing much in life that’s half assed. Though I would answer with my own question: what do we mean by winning, exactly? Does “win” mean making Afghanistan as stable as Pakistan? Hmmm…

She continues:

Mr. Obama owns the war in Afghanistan. He bought it, on credit. But he is fulminating at the cost now that the bill is coming due. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has made clear what the bill will be in terms of additional troops. And the president now wants a review to determine whether we’re pursuing the right strategy.

It is disappointing that this review comes after the president decided to keep 68,000 Americans risking their lives in Afghanistan. But Mr. Obama is right to give himself a chance to decide whether he is willing to follow through on this war, given what it will cost in blood, treasure, and other things.

Again, hard to argue. I’m a bit disappointed with Obama for the review, too.  But for different reasons.

Obama should have been asking these very difficult questions earlier in the year, before he decided to increase the troops levels the first time, bringing us up to 68,000. (Because it’s been clear to anyone who has paid attention to Afghanistan over the past year that the military commanders wanted more than 17,ooo extra troops.) His public comments indicated that he was willing to fight this “war of necessitty” with guns blazing, so it’s no surprise McChrystal et al. had high expectations that their needs would be fulfilled.

The White House has been arguing that the controversial election in August gave them second thoughts. If this is the case, then we should all be a little concerned. It means, for however briefly, they had entered Bush-like delusion land. That a ballot box and a purple finger would be the game changer. 

Did Obama’s brain trust really expect Afghan elections to be a clean and fair deal? Seriously? Is naivete a job requirement for foreign policy gigs in the White House? 

Anyway, Ms. Schake takes up the rest of the Op-Ed saying that the civilians haven’t been doing their part, the State Department isn’t stepping up to the plate, and the military’s been carrying all the burden, etc. (Maybe because, as Stephen Glain reports, the Pentagon basically runs our foreign policy: “[SecDef Gates] has wryly pointed out how, given the Defense Department’s $664 billion budget compared with the State Department’s $52 billion annual outlay, Washington employs more military band members than it does foreign service officers.”)

But, I do concur with the larger sentiment of the piece: while we debate the finer points of policy, American soldiers and Afghans are dying.  That’s not theoretical, and it should help us make up our minds.

BONUS POLITICAL ANALYIS: Even if there is something called a “win” in Afghanistan, politically, it doesn’t help Obama much. Iraq showed us this. (John McCain’s support of the surge didn’t mean jack, in the end.) If the war in Afghanistan starts to go well, folks in America will stop paying attention to it.  It’s only when the wars are noticeably going bad that they become a viable political issue. 

Why has the public recently soured on the war? After the first troop increase, the operation in Helmand, the elections, the deadly month of August, people have been forced to look at it. The Af/Pak war had been going bad for about four years straight and no one cared until last month! Why? ‘Cause Americans started to die.  Increase the troops, at least in the short run, you’re going to have a lot more months like August. People won’t like that. And then if things actually do stabilize to the point where we forget the war is going on in a year or two or four, uh, well, we’ll have forgetten the war is going on… The public is tired of these wars–and barring a terrorist attack in the U.S., there won’t be a war fever bounce in the polls. So Obama could eventually try to take credit for “stabilizing Afghanistan”, but they’ll be other, more pressing issues that the folks will be voting on and talking about. (How’s healthcare going, btw?)

UPDATE: Schake, former foreign policy advisor to John McCain, seems to have expressed doubts about our ability win in Afghanistan, too. Read the essay she wrote earlier this year, headlined: “Iraq a war we are winning; Afghanistan a war we can’t win

About michaelhastings

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8 Responses to Afghanistan: In it to win what? Plus: Politically, it's a loser if you win

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    I think the “war of necessity” argument has to have a re-thought. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 the Taliban ran the government and al Qaeda was based there. That war may indeed have been a war of necessity. The war is over, we won. The current war is an entirely different war. We are not fighting a country run by the Taliban but local tribes and their militias defending their opium business. The Taliban and al Qaeda, which are based in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, are probably not the main armed forces US troops are fighting. It is also not clear what threat the Taliban poses the US, or even the Afghan government in Kabul. This war, this different, separate, later war may not be a war of necessity, at least not for the US.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      David,more or less agree with you. I don’t think we have a vital national interest at stake there.

    • Kim Lancaster says:

      I am also concerned with the “Mission Creep” that has developed in Afganistan. History shows us that outside forces will always be met with hostility in this region. I like the idea of the El Salvador model for limited help for allied interests. We cannot continue with the role of unilaterally policing the world. It will only lead to more resentment that is counter productive to our interests, not to mention the enormous costs on many levels.

  2. P.J. Tobia says:

    “If the war in Afghanistan starts to go well, folks in America will stop paying attention to it.”

    You think they pay attention now?

    • Michael Hastings says:

      PJ, not really, but the public awareness of the war seems to be at its highest level in years right now. I suppose I should define “paying attention”–ie, if lots of Americans are getting killed everyday, it’s harder to ignore ’cause it’s in the papers and on the TV broadcasts. It’s not so much an active interest as passive distaste for what’s happening “over there.”

      Bigger question I’ve been mulling: can anyone name a war that the longer it has gone on, the more popular it has become?

  3. Bob Dunn says:

    I think most Americans pay attention, in 30-second bursts, to what they see on their TV screens. And since TV isn’t showing much war footage these days, it’s drifted out of most Americans’ consciousness.

    But some pay closer attention, especially as the cost of killing and being killed, in dollar terms, approaches $1 trillion when you combine costs in Afghanistan and the much pricier Iraq.

    Other than the military contractors, it looks like we’re running a negative ROI.

  4. jerryw says:

    The answer is obvious, we’re in it to win so we can be the first in history to win a land war against the locals in that rat hole of a country.

    If we could do this, we might be winning in the very same place where Gengis Kahn had his ass handed to him on a plate, and no one since has done any better.

    Yeah, I did say “might”, so I’m just sayin’…..

  5. cowboylogic says:


    I don’t think we are fairly evaluating what is happening in Afghanistan.

    What power in all of history purposely ties their military’s arms behind their backs with the restrictive rules of engagement that our military is under?

    I am amazed at how well we have done given that figuratively we are only allowing our guys to fight with one pinky finger.

    Read Ralph Peters latest column (NY Post – “The rules murdering our troops”)BLASTING our own generals and politicians for priveleging Taliban sensitivities over the safety of our men on the ground.

    And as far as the public’s attention to Afghanistan hobbling what we are doing there…. excuse me but it’s something called leadership that is supposed to overcome or nullify the effects of public apathy.

    And lastly, I want to encourage you to step back from the political calculus that is so easy and familiar and instead search out the signifiance of this conflict in the context of world history.

    My own recommendation would be to start reading the almost daily posts of my favorite Democrat Academic and military historian, Victor Davis Hanson.

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