Belmont Club

Max Boot on Afghanistan

Writing in Commentary, Max Boot describes President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy as everything John McCain would have done — with some changes in atmospherics.

The new Afghanistan policy that President Obama unveiled at the White House today was pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on. … The big news — though it had been apparent for some time — is that Obama is eschewing those who argue for a major downsizing of our efforts to focus on a narrow counter-terrorism strategy of simply picking off individual bad guys. Instead, Obama is embracing a more wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy focused on enhancing “the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” …

I am not sold on every aspect of the Obama policy. For instance, he endorsed legislation to send even more money to Pakistan promising that there would be “benchmarks” to make sure the aid isn’t wasted like previous U.S. donations to Islamabad. … I also have grave doubt that the “new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan” will do much good. … Count me skeptical that Iran, for one, actually has a stake in “lasting peace and security” in Afghanistan if that means that Afghanistan will be a democratic ally of the United States, a.k.a. the Great Satan. But it is true that the Iranians were mildly helpful in Afghanistan in early 2002, and it wouldn’t hurt their willingness to provide cooperation in the future while remaining skeptical of any promises they may make.”

In an earlier post, I wrote that it made sense to treat both Pakistan and Afghanistan as one theater, but that this entailed the additional risk of dragging the already complex situation in Pakistan into the equation. Like Max Boot, I doubt the Iranians will help for nothing. There will always be “linkage”; there’s no free lunch. Having said that, I remain convinced that Afghanistan/Pakistan can in some sense be meaningfully won but only if resources and patience are devoted to it.  The challenges are huge. Afghanistan is a bigger country, geographically, than Iraq and all its institutions are starting from a far lower base than the Land Between the Rivers. And because of the complication of Pakistan the theater can degenerate into a crisis that had no parallel in the defeated empire of Saddam. A senior military officer who spoke regarding Afghanistan at a dinner I attended also believed Afghanistan could be won “if”. That’s the crucial word: “if”. Bing West wrote about the ifs:

“Obama has reason to tread carefully. Pres. Jimmy Carter also had high goals, but the gap between his performance and his rhetoric inculcated an attitude of cynicism throughout the ranks of the military. To win in Afghanistan, Obama must lobby his party to support the war effort, year after year, and to supply the necessary resources. Instead, by promising that he will win while reducing funding, he’s made a daunting task sound impossibly easy.”

You can always walk across a long high wire if you keep your nerve and nobody twangs the thing under you. In this I predicted that BHO would receive more support from conservatives and the members of his own party. The bottom line is you can get across a wire stretched across the Niagra but it’s a long way to fall.