My assignment for the Sunday column this week is Afghanistan. I tried last night but was blocked ( a rare event for an OCD hack like me). Of course, I've been thinking about it for quite a while now and airing a range of opinions on this blog. What the president faces is an excruciatingly difficult choice in an immensely complex and dangerous region where power is in flux and the future very hard to assess. The way he's handling this decision - as transparently as feasible - is admirable. I've had some deep worries about general McChrystal, and was appalled that he was allegedly threatening to resign if he didn't get his way. But it seems clear now that he never threatened to resign, and those who leaked that non-fact were trying to bounce him as much as the president. And his speeches and comments this past week seem to me to speak very highly of him, and his bluntness in public and private suggest a man serious about winning this war. On a human level, anyone who can recite whole sections of Monty Python And The Holy Grail by heart is all right with me.
But I worry that his analysis - "all in or all out" - is not quite right. I've relied on this formula myself in the past, but every time I follow through in my head the full consequences of either path, I end up feeling deeply uncomfortable. I'll be candid and note, as readers will surely have twigged by now, that my Tory pessimism is resurgent. This is not just Afghanistan; it's Afghanistan after thirty years of violence, mayhem, brutality and anarchy. To believe that America can create a functioning stable state in that context seems insane to me, and given this country's fiscal crisis, a reckless commitment for the distant future. At the same time, letting Afghanistan unravel still further right now, with the ramifications for Pakistan's knife-edge struggle with Islamism, is a risk few American presidents would willingly take.
Pakistan's military is on the verge of a major offensive against the Taliban. Last time, they lost. This time, they sound more determined. We don't know the outcome of that. The election in Afghanistan is unresolved, with serious and credible allegations of fraud, and the possibility of a run-off or any number of possible unforeseen developments. Again, we do not know the outcome of that. Iraq is far from stable and could descend into sectarian anarchy when the US leaves. There are some encouraging signs there - especially Maliki's inclusion of Sunni groups in his new coalition and an apparent resurgence of national unity as a theme in the current campaign. If Iraqis are finally ready to leave the past behind, if the bloody chaos of the worst years have shifted that national psyche, then that would indeed be miraculous. But anyone boldly predicting triumph needs their head examined. The truth is: we do not know the outcome of that either, and since the US has limited resources, and has already pummeled the troops beyond what most mortals could tolerate, we should, it seems to me, be very cautious about over-extension in very volatile regions.
Marc Lynch is pretty much on the same page at this point, and he draws the following conclusion:
What’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.
At this point, it seems to me we have to leave our past behind as much as Iraqis need to leave theirs'. What's vital is that we make this decision based on the facts on the ground and as hard-nosed an assessment of reality as we can muster - not as a means to further or inflame our ideological and political battles of the past eight years. At this point in time, I think Lynch's case for kicking the can down the road for a little while longer, while we absorb as many data points as we can about the events in the region and beyond, is pretty damn persuasive.
It isn't weakness; and it isn't surrender. It's just being responsible. Too much is at stake to be anything else right now. And, to be honest, I have every confidence in this cabinet and this general and this president will do the best they absolutely can. And while we shouldn't stint in criticism, we should allow them some lee-way in an immensely difficult and fateful call.
(Photo: the great Paula Bronstein/Getty.)