National Security Network

A Serious Debate Emerges on Afghanistan, but Conservative Opposition Stands on Sidelines

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Report 16 September 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan military neoconservatives Obama Realists


Afghanistan remains critical to the security of the United States and the region. But after years of neglect by the Bush administration the situation in Afghanistan is dire; regional experts, progressives and foreign policy realists are voicing important questions about whether, how and to what end the situation can be turned around. Instead of ignoring these credible critiques and the emerging debate as the Bush administration did during its tenure, the Obama administration is engaging skeptics, as it seeks to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy.

Unfortunately, largely absent from the debate is a credible voice among the conservative opposition in Congress, which is now dominated by neoconservative thinking. After bungling the war on Afghanistan in favor of Iraq, neoconservatives have little credibility.  Their calls for a massive, never-ending military commitment that will somehow turn Afghanistan into a democratic Valhalla reflect the same misguided thinking and over-militarized approach that we saw over the last eight years. In Afghanistan, there will be no presidential landing on an aircraft carrier proclaiming victory. This conflict is not one that will simply be “won” by sending in more troops. Instead, a positive outcome is dependent on diplomatic, political, and developmental efforts. The President must unveil realistic goals and expectations for American involvement and advance the implementation of a comprehensive strategy that is in line with America’s broader national security interests.

A genuine debate is happening among experts, progressives and foreign policy realists. Neocons have set up a false debate with only a full-bore military solution. The debate over the limits of American power and our ability to create a positive outcome in Afghanistan is important – and the White House, by slowing down its own internal review process, has shown that it is paying attention. 

  • Paul Pillar, a Georgetown professor and CIA counterterrorism veteran, asks fundamental questions about the counter-terrorism mission in today’s Washington Post.  He writes, that “[t]he debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?” [Paul Pillar, Washington Post, 9/16/09]
  • Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress argues for a greater commitment: “Candidate Obama was correct in calling Iraq an unnecessary war and promising to give priority to Afghanistan. He made a good start shortly after taking office by sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and setting a date to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq. But he should not let ‘troop needs’ in Iraq remain a limiting factor on sending more forces to Afghanistan.” [Lawrence Korb, 8/31/09]
  • A coalition of realist scholars and advocates wrote a letter to the president yesterday urging him to consider the limits of U.S. power and to focus on al Qaeda, not state building.  The letter says in part, that “Today, we are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building.” [Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, 9/15/09]
  • Former Ambassador Morton Abramowitz wrote in Foreign Policy last month that state-building will be more difficult than has been appreciated: “the administration asserts that if the Taliban is to be permanently prevented from controlling Afghanistan and allowing al Qaeda to roam, it is necessary to build an Afghan state with a strong central government. But such intense, long-term nation-building is much more difficult in Afghanistan than Iraq: The economy is rudimentary and dependent on poppy cultivation, the population is highly illiterate, the ethnic divisions are numerous, the trained officials are few. The administration apparently believes that if significant nation-building progress is made via the military and civilian "surge" in the next year, Congress will provide funds for the longer term. That is an impressive gamble.” [Morton Abramowitz, Foreign Policy, 8/10/09]

Meanwhile neocons and the conservative opposition, who neglected Afghanistan for the last seven years, now argue for a full-bore military commitment to Afghanistan, saying doing anything less amounts to defeatism.  A letter from the neoconservative advocacy group the Foreign Policy Initiative attempts to tie hands of the President, creating a “with-us-or-against-us” debate and forcing the U.S. toward a massive commitment of lives and resources without first settling on a plan for success. The letter reads, “With General McChrystal expected to request additional troops later this month, we urge you to continue on the path you have taken thus far and give our commanders on the ground the forces they need to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy. There is no middle course. Incrementally committing fewer troops than required would be a grave mistake and may well lead to American defeat.  We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.” Suggesting that the President blindly increase troop numbers and ignore input from other senior military leaders and civilian foreign policy advisors is reflective of the same hands off and inept approach that characterized neoconservative management of Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush administration.  [Foreign Policy Initiative, 9/07/09]

At the end of the day, there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan.  The Afghanistan debate has been distorted by a huge emphasis on military resources, particularly by prominent conservatives associated with the Iraq War.  In a joint op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Senators McCain (R – AZ), Lieberman (Ind. – CT) and Graham (R – SC) argued that “we must commit the ‘decisive force’ that Gen. McChrystal tells us carries the least risk of failure.”  They concluded by urging the President to defer to his commanders on the ground, by giving them the “decisive military force necessary to prevail.” 

However, as Afghanistan’s ongoing electoral crisis demonstrates, the mission could just as easily come apart due to a lack of attention to issues of governance and legitimacy.  In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen confirmed this point: “‘I consider the threat from lack of governance to be equal to the threat from the Taliban... The lack of legitimacy in the government at every level’ has been a key factor in the return of the Taliban after US-led forces drove them from power after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said,” reported AFP.  CFR expert Stephen Biddle made a similar point after returning from a stint on General McChrystal’s civilian advisory team: “I think the likelihood of success in security provision is higher than the likelihood of success in governance reform.  I think there is some chance of success in both domains, but governance is the harder of the two.” 

Though some conservatives have tried to situate the debate around troop numbers, our military leadership agrees that prospects for stability in Afghanistan and the surrounding region depend more on the political and diplomatic efforts made by the U.S. and its partners in the area.  This is why the Obama administration has emphasized that whatever the scale of the military effort, success will ultimately rest on their ability to implement an integrated approach, with a strong emphasis on non-military components of national power. [Senators McCain (R – AZ), Lieberman (Ind. – CT) and Graham (R – SC) via the WSJ, 9/13/09. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen, via AFP, 9/15/09. Stephen Biddle, 7/30/09]

Victory in Afghanistan will never be the President standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier.  Conservatives have tried to define success in Afghanistan in the same absolute terms which they used with Iraq.  A recent letter by the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, with signatures from individuals who urged the disastrous shift from Afghanistan to Iraq, described the conflict as “winnable” and urged the President to avoid “defeatism.”  An op-ed from Senators McCain (R – AZ), Lieberman (Ind. – CT) and Graham (R – SC) approached the conflict similarly, calling it a “must-win.”

But whatever course the administration adopts in Afghanistan, it is clear that success will not be defined by premature claims of victory or banners on the decks of aircraft carriers.  Asked by ABC News to define “victory” in Afghanistan, President Obama replied that it was the wrong word for evaluating success. “I'm always worried about using the word ‘victory’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur,” said the President.  Obama continued, describing how the “shadowy” nature of al-Qaeda and the Taliban made it impossible to define success with black and white criteria: “You know, we're not dealing with nation states at this point. We're concerned with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, al-Qaeda's allies. So when you have a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda, our goal is to make sure they can't attack the United States. Now I think that's going to require constant vigilance.” [Foreign Policy Initiative, 9/07/09. [Senators McCain (R – AZ), Lieberman (Ind. – CT) and Graham (R – SC) via the WSJ, 9/13/09. President Obama, 7/23/09]

What We’re Reading

A minimum of 10% of ballots, and perhaps more, from Afghanistan’s presidential election will be reexamined in their upcoming recount. Consternation over the election results has caused American UN diplomat Peter W. Galbraith to temporarily leave the country.
Pakistani police repelled gunmen from attacking an oil facility in Karachi.

Vice President Joseph Biden will meet with Iraqi Prime Minsiter Nouri al-Maliki while three Iraqis were arrested for shelling the US embassy with mortars during the Vice President’s visit. Graffiti artists in Iraq leave a unique legacy of tolerance and respect.

The Chinese military sent over trainers to both Iraq and Afghanistan to help train their de-mining military personnel.

Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton lays out the agenda for talks with Iran, putting the nuclear issue at the forefront of topics to be discussed. Iran continues to arrest members of the reformist opposition, recently arresting children of dissident clerics.

Yukio Hatoyama was sworn in as the 93rd Prime Minster of Japan, following his Democratic Party’s victory over the previously ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says the intelligence community has been hunting Al-Qaeda more efficiently as more knowledge of the group is pieced together.

The White House seeks to reauthorize a modified version of the Patriot Act, with provisions to enhance measures to safeguard civil liberties.

A United Nation’s panel examines war crimes by both Israeli and Hamas forces during the January Gazan War. Meanwhile, Middle East Envoy George Mitchell sets further talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

A bipartisan panel released their study suggesting that two colors be removed from the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist threat warning system.

The United Nations is investigating whether contractors in Somalia were skimming profits and diverting it to rebel groups in the country.

Commentary of the Day

Joseph Kearns Goodwin argues new international efforts to combat corruption in the Afghan government are necessary in order to prevent the whole mission from collapsing.

Paul Pillar explains why a physical safe haven is not the most important ingredient for a terrorist group to be successful, and how that analysis affects the mission in Afghanistan.

James Lamont and Farhan Bokhari analyze the unlikely rise of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.