Shadow Government

Rothkopf is Wrong on Afghanistan

Fellow FP blogger David Rothkopf criticizes outgoing Defense Secretary Bob gates for daring to notice progress in Afghanistan. Rothkopf doubts that reconciliation with the Taliban is truly possible or that political progress "would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups." He argues that the 2014 deadline has eroded our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban and undermined our influence in post-war Afghanistan. Most incredibly, he believes that "ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful" that any further effort is futile.

Rothkopf is right about the 2014 deadline and wrong about everything else. Take his assertion that a political deal with the Taliban has no prospect of improving stability in Afghanistan or denying safe haven to al-Qaeda. This seems to me a completely unfounded assertion. Post-war Afghanistan is not going to be a particularly pleasant place to live, but a post-war Afghanistan created by a negotiated settlement with most insurgents on terms favorable to us will almost certainly be a more pleasant, and safer, place than Afghanistan circa 2001 and one in which we will retain the ability to protect our interests in South Asia.

Rothkopf elides the difference between a sup-optimal outcome and complete failure. It is as if our failure to achieve perfection means that we should give up completely. Since we admittedly bungled the job for the first five or six years, paid an irreparable opportunity cost, and can no longer hope to achieve in Afghanistan what we could have if we had put out a good faith effort from the very beginning, we should, according to Rothkopf, call it quits.

This is nonsense. Rothkopf is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perfection is out of our grasp, but we can still achieve better-than-awful. We won't get an A, but we might pull out a C, which is better than the F we'll get if we pull out too quickly. Notably Rothkopf does not describe what is likely to happen following a rapid American withdrawal (civil war, instability in Pakistan), the costs associated with those consequences, or how we should deal with that scenario. He can't, because all of those considerations prove that Rothkopf's prescription is worse than the disease.

Of course, Rothkopf does not believe that because he believes that "ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful." He does not believe we have ever made significant progress, and thus have no gains to consolidate through a responsible drawdown. This is worse than nonsense: this is ignorant nonsense. It ignores the very real economic progress in the country since 2001 and the unexpected successes of the Bonn process, which I have described in detail elsewhere. It also ignores the widely recognized security gains of the past one or two years. Rothkopf's assertion that "ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful," treats the previous decade as an undifferentiated track record of consistent failure. You don't have to be a partisan booster to recognize how wrong this picture is.

Tom Barfield rightly said in his magnificent book, Afghanistan: A Political and Culture History, that those who know the least about Afghanistan make the most definitive statements about it. That is unfortunately true. It is discouraging to see that a sort of defeatist groupthink has taken hold of much of the foreign policy establishment regarding Afghanistan. But not as depressing as realizing that President Obama might actually listen to them.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Eroding Public Support for Afghanistan? Perhaps, but Not (Yet) a Total Collapse

A recent Washington Post poll shows that President Obama probably has the political breathing room he would need to choose from a wider array of options on Afghanistan than the conventional wisdom believes. While support for the war is eroding, it has not eroded to the point where domestic political considerations need trump a careful consideration of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Put another way: if a measured withdrawal would increase prospects for a successful outcome in Afghanistan than would a rapid retreat from the theater, then there may be enough political space in American domestic politics to permit such an approach.

This only sharpens the very difficult choice confronting Obama. Fred and Kimberly Kagan argue that conditions on the ground dictate delaying the withdrawal, or at least opting for a slower, more modest withdrawal than the anti-war faction has demanded. If the Kagans are right -- and I would note that Stephen Biddle has offered a similar compelling take -- then a hasty withdrawal is precisely the wrong thing to do at this point. Some of Obama's advisors are arguing for an accelerated withdrawal, while others are arguing for a more measured transition that would focus on the 2014 strategic horizon

In sum, expert opinion is divided with forceful arguments on either side. And, not coincidentally, political support is weak. Weak, but perhaps not completely beyond the reach of a determined mobilization effort -- or so the recent poll might suggest. That such a window still exists is a remarkable fact, given how little President Obama has done to shore up political support for the war he called a "necessary" war a few years ago. It means that President Obama does face political pressure to end the war in Afghanistan, but that that pressure need not be considered irresistible. A determined commander-in-chief could still pursue a costlier strategy, provided that he persuaded the American public that this offered the best chance of leading to a more successful outcome.

But first, one person needs to be persuaded: himself. The most important Afghanistan debate today is not the one in Congress or in opinion polls. It is the one inside President Obama's head and heart. Even insiders very close to the action do not feel confident about predicting the outcome of that debate.

From my distant perch in the bleachers, I have even less confidence in forecasting the Obama debate. I will, however, predict that he will give us a clearer window into his thinking through some sort of Big Speech on Afghanistan within the month. I do not see how he can avoid doing so on the margins of deciding/announcing how many U.S. troops will exit Afghanistan starting July.

Brian Ferguson/U.S. via Getty Images