The war in Afghanistan is the revenge of the Iraq war. It was amid the great debate about Iraq that there was born the myth of Afghanistan as the good war of “necessity”—the September 11 war. We had erred, American liberals insisted; we had opted for the wrong war in Mesopotamia when we should have stayed the course in Afghanistan. An operative of the Democratic Party, the “strategist” of its defeats in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, Robert Shrum, once gave a straightforward account of the genesis of this mindset: “I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as the ‘right war’ to conventional Democratic wisdom. This was accurate as criticism of the Bush administration, but it was also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy.”
In his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama was keen to make it known that he was no pacifist who opposed all wars; he only opposed “stupid wars,” he said, and Iraq was his prime exhibit of stupid wars. Thus, a man who was devastating in his assessment of the war in Mesopotamia was ready to do war in the Hindu Kush. Some months into his presidency, in August 2009, Obama was to take up the matter of Afghanistan before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He wasn’t exactly their idea of a commander-in-chief, and they were not exactly his base, but the president would now claim a military campaign of his own: “The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on September 11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda could plot to kill more Americans.”
There was a contradiction at the heart of this summons to war: Obama fell back on September 11 as a casus belli in Afghanistan, even as he underplayed the menace of radical Islamism. We were not to speak of the “war on terror,” Obama’s administration had it. His heart and his priorities lay elsewhere—health care, financial reform, climate change, the re-drawing of the balance between the state and the private sector, the state of our public schools. No wonder he took his time finalizing an Afghan war policy of his own. He did so on December 1, at West Point, practically a full year into his presidency. There was something dutiful and reluctant about the speech, which seemed to treat the war as a campaign promise to be fulfilled, a damnable, thankless fight that could neither be won nor abandoned—something of Lyndon Johnson’s attitude toward the war that wrecked his presidency. On different occasions, LBJ called Vietnam a “bitch of a war”; said, “I just don’t think it is worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out—it’s just the biggest damn mess”; and declared, “I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less.”
That knowledge, and the laments, didn’t rescue LBJ. Perhaps we are a less ideological nation now; perhaps we can relegate Afghanistan to the obscurity it so richly deserves with greater ease than LBJ and his contemporaries could do with Vietnam. The jihadist menace is portable nowadays. Al Qaeda has homes aplenty beyond Afghanistan—Yemen and Somalia are new bases from which terror could be waged. Besides, the United States didn’t know—and still doesn’t—the Afghan cultural and political landscape. We have no worthy strategic partner in place; there are only warlords and bandit chieftains thrilled that the chaos and breakdown of their country has pulled a great, wealthy power into their midst. A culture of dependency on foreign handouts has taken root among the Afghans. We say we are there to rebuild the Afghan state. But, in truth, the place has never had central authority worth its name.
Since Obama has not conveyed much enthusiasm for the war, it is little surprise that he has been unable to sell the war to his allies at home. Three-fifths of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives recently voted for an amendment that would have required the president to present a plan by next April for the “safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Yet, despite all of this, Obama has chosen to stay in the country and pursue a counterinsurgency strategy. In its barest outline, counterinsurgency is a war for the loyalty of the native population. There are determined insurgents, and those you destroy; there are “accidental guerrillas” who drifted into the fight, and those you rehabilitate and buy off; there is the great mass on the fence who wait to see if the foreign power, and the dependent native regime, have the means and the will to prevail. The American military planners prosecuting this Afghan campaign are shrewd enough to recognize the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, but the template of the Iraq war hovers over the Afghan battle. The “Anbar Awakening” broke the alliance between the Sunnis of Iraq and the jihadists who had converged on that country from Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Libya; now, the Americans need a “Pashtun Awakening” that would break with the Taliban. In Iraq, a vast militia of some 100,000 recruits, the Sons of Iraq, were peeled off from the insurgency. A defection of a similar magnitude is the goal of the American command.
Will it work? I bring to this American venture in Afghanistan an ambivalence I didn’t toward Iraq. But we can’t quit this endeavor as of yet. In a perfect world, my own preference would have been to avoid deep entanglement in Afghanistan, but we are beyond that point. We ought to at least give the brilliant David Petraeus a chance to find out whether our strategy can succeed, even as we recognize that—thanks to the steep obstacles posed by Afghanistan, the evident lack of enthusiasm for this war from Obama, and the outright hostility to the entire enterprise from Washington’s governing party—we may be asking more of the general than he or any military commander can deliver. Petraeus surely understands the difficult situation in which he finds himself. Nearly a quarter-century ago, in his Ph.D. dissertation, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” he wrote that, when it comes to military interventions, “time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.” He quotes, poignantly, the verse of a “disgruntled general” who bristled at the burdens civilians throw at military commanders:
I am not allowed to run the train
The whistle I can’t blow.
I am not allowed to say how fast
The railroad trains can go.
I am not allowed to shoot off steam
Nor even clang the bell.
But let it jump the goddam tracks
And see who catches hell!
Fouad Ajami teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.