Stephen Walt counters some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the war in Afghanistan:
We wouldn't intervene if we were starting from scratch today, but some will say that allowing ourselves to be defeated by the Taliban will have disastrous effects on our reputation and encourage bin Laden & Co. to believe they are winning. Robert Kaplan takes this line in an op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that "an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is precisely what would lead to our decline, by demoralizing our military, signaling to our friends worldwide that we cannot be counted on and demonstrating that our enemies have greater resolve than we do. That is why we have no choice in Afghanistan but to add troops and continue to fight."
This is an familiar line of argument, of course, even though the best scholarly studies of reputation and credibility have found that past behavior doesn't have much effect on future credibility. Be that as it may, one could just as easily argue that U.S. credibility will be damaged far more if we squander another trillion dollars in Afghanistan and end up with a degraded and demoralized military and a population that is truly sick of overseas involvements.
Michael Cohen expands that line of thought:
And when it comes to empowering al Qaeda, while Gates may be correct that leaving Afghanistan will be a boost to the organization so too would the continued presence of US troops in the country - just as the continued presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and the perception of US meddling in the region gave impetus to al Qaeda in the 1990s. By Gates's logic, the US is held hostage to the propagandizing of al Qaeda. It makes their "interpretation" of US behavior more important than the behavior itself. [...]
But perhaps the worst element of this argument is that it feels like a continuation of Dick Cheney's one percent doctrine. If there is even a slight chance that al Qaeda will be empowered by a US and NATO retreat from Afghanistan then we must stay. It's akin to running foreign policy via worst case scenarios as opposed to a careful weighing of costs and benefits. I can't imagine that anyone can reasonably argue that the benefit of not giving al Qaeda a public relations victory is worth the lives of American soldiers and more than $65 billion in taxpayer dollars.
I think these guys are on the money. I hope Obama hears them.