You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Least-Bad Options

Commentators of many political stripes agree that the U. S.-NATO expedition, in Afghanistan since 2001, long ago foundered and continues to founder, especially in the embattled south. “America and its allies are losing in Afghanistan," writes The Economist. “A survey in 120 districts racked by insurgency, a third of Afghanistan’s total, found little popular support for Mr Karzai. Over a third of their inhabitants backed the insurgents.” The Pashtun-dominated section of the country where the Taliban is strong has availed itself of the classic insurgent knack for turning the enemy’s prowess against him.  Thus,

The Wall Street Journal says of the more than $100 million the U. S. has spent repairing a hydropower plant in the Pashtun-dominated south, “one of the biggest beneficiaries…are the Taliban themselves.”

In the New York Daily News, Michael Cohen writes:  “The Army's own public opinion surveys note that upward of 80% of Kandaharis view the Taliban as ‘Afghan brothers’ and 94% oppose U.S. intervention there.”

I retain the epistemological skepticism of which I wrote last time. But as the pessimistic reports line up, and arguments for prolonging the expedition sprout holes with every passing American casualty, the burden of proof is on those who claim there is no alternative to the current strategy besides what Lyndon Johnson, with characteristic bluntness, used to call “tuck-tail-and-run.”  They have not shouldered their burden well.

Take The Economist’s claim (June 24) that defeat would be “a disaster” because first, “The narrow aim of denying al-Qaeda a haven…would become impossible to achieve.”  At this late date, can it be disputed that, as we have been hearing for well nigh a decade ad nauseam, al-Qaeda is not a nation-state but an opportunistic, border-crossing network?  If there are indeed 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives on the territory of Afghanistan, as Leon Panetta recently said, and if there are “more than 300” on Pakistani territory, according to National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, the need for more than 100,000 NATO troops on Afghan soil is, to say the least, highly exaggerated, even as the network has established its functional nodes “in unruly parts of northern Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia,” as The Economist acknowledges in the dependent clause of an uncharacteristically clumsy sentence.   Perhaps the bad syntax reflects a poor argument getting stuck in their collective throat.

As for their second claim—that the U. S. is in effect a peace-keeper, since “a Western withdrawal would leave Afghanistan vulnerable to a civil war that might suck in the local powers, including Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia”—there is already a war that has sucked in NATO powers, and the U. S. cannot be the whole world’s vacuum-filler of last resort.

The Economist’s third point is true:  “Defeat in Afghanistan would mark a humiliation for the West, and for NATO, that would give succor to its foes in the world.”  Indeed, there is the humiliation of pulling back—which might well be unavoidable if the cost of staying in full force is too high and the alternative is decent.  Which takes us to the fourth point, an apt reminder: “[D]o not forget the Afghan people. Having invaded their country, the West has a duty to return it to them in a half-decent state.” But again, what if a half-decent state is not in prospect, at least in roughly half the country?  What if Karzai’s corrupt, crooked, drug-selling and warlord-heavy regime cannot deliver it?  Then, even if Afghanis much prefer NATO to the Taliban, there may be no practical way to deliver what they want. The U. S. was fully justified in overthrowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001.  The current war is a different war, and the former rationale—however defensible at the time—is not infinitely renewable.

Andrew Bacevich argued last week that Barack Obama’s enter-while-dressing-to-exit strategy lacks both coherence and moral force; that Obama, the “would-be messiah,” is asking “young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake.”

True, the counterinsurgent strategy known by the anodyne label nation-building is unimpressive to date.  It does not smell like victory.  It smells like temporizing.  It looks like circle-squaring. Where I disagree with Bacevich is on the subject of whether Obama is “deserving of contempt.”  Obama made, I think, a bad judgment, predicated not only on political caution but on a futile hope—that Karzai is a wagon that both Afghanistan and America ought to be hitched to.  That all the options were hard was not his doing.

During the Vietnam War, the standard pro-war rhetorical move was a question meant to be self-answering:  How can we leave?  To which the standard rejoinder was:  On ships. The point was glib but—for its purpose— sufficient.  The U. S., allied with a series of hapless and rootless semi-governments, was at war with deeply rooted Communist insurgents with vast numbers of constituents, bottomless reserves, and ample sanctuary.  Sooner or later they were going to outlast us—and in many respects, as nationalists, they deserved to.  De facto colonial occupation by the Americans, after the French had failed at it, was not a live proposition.

What, then, would be the consequences of leaving?  It was a fair question— about which, unfortunately, the mindset in power then was unable to think straight.  The domino theory was a transparent fiction—transparent, at least, to anyone who knew anything about the difficulties of what was still quaintly called the Sino-Soviet alliance. Whether the U. S. left Vietnam in 1954 or 1975, the outcome would have been a unified Vietnam under a Communist government—ruthless, Leninist, and self-limiting.

So now what?  Are ships, those all-purpose conversation-stoppers—or cargo planes, Afghanistan being land-locked—the only alternatives to yet more of a grim prospect?  Not so fast.  Alternatives have been put forward, though orthodox Washington is yet to take them with the seriousness they deserve.

Against the current strategy, Columbia’s Austin Long defends “a small footprint counterterrorism mission over the course of the next three years, ending up with a force of about 13,000 military personnel (or less) in Afghanistan.”

Michael Cohen argues for retrenching in the north and west, where the Taliban have never been very popular, reducing the American presence in the Pashtun south, and negotiating the Taliban into some sort of Qaeda-proof arrangement.

Whether these are plausible scenarios takes me above my pay grade.  I doubt they are foolproof.  But they are not to be casually dismissed. They are not elegant, nor are they guaranteed to succeed, but it is hard to see how the current path can be anything but treacherous. As long as alternatives are thinkable, they deserve the best thought that a thoughtful president can muster.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia. His next book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election(written with Liel Leibovitz), will be out in September.