I think this strategy is doomed. But then I think any strategy that does not pledge to colonize Afghanistan, pour trillions of dollars into it and stay for a century is doomed. So why do I end up this morning feeling rather similar to my colleague, Jim Fallows, who simply sighs: 'Well, I hope he's right"?
Here's why. The sanest option - leave now - would leave allies high and dry, prompt domestic cries of surrender, demoralize the military, break a clear campaign pledge, and signal to Pakistan that the Taliban is their problem now. Everything but the latter are worth avoiding.
The neocon answer - stay until there are no Qaeda elements, no Taliban and a functioning democracy not financed by opium - is simply unhinged. It means an empire in the Muslim world for the rest of our lives. And the idea that permanent Western occupation of Muslim lands will decrease Jihadist terror is so insane only Dick Cheney could still believe it.
This war is already eight years' old and will soon have lasted longer than Vietnam. Its rationale today is very different than what it was in 2001 - 2002. Al Qaeda is based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The US, thanks to Bush and the recession, is bankrupt and facing a long and brutal period of high unemployment and soon huge cuts in entitlements or big tax hikes.
Our enemy already knows that the US cannot sustain neo-imperial control of a vast inhospitable country on the other side of the planet for more than a decade. And if the US were to do so, it would be becoming the imperial power the neocons and the Islamists truly want. What Obama was saying last night is that he is determined to return America to normal, to unplug this vast attempt at global control in Muslim countries that Bush and Cheney unleashed. He is trying to unwind the empire, not expand it.
How best to unwind the empire? By giving McChrystal what he wants and giving him a couple of years to deliver tangible results. If McChrystal delivers, fantastic. I will do a ritual self-flagellation and bow down to the man with no body-fat and a close relationship with 33 Kagans of various generations and genders. If McChrystal does his best and we still get nowhere, Obama will have demonstrated - not argued, demonstrated - that withdrawal is the least worst option.
The far right will accuse him of weakness - but they will do that anyway. All he need do is remind Americans of what the far right version of "strength" is: engaging an enemy on his own turf, sustaining an insurgency by our very presence, draining the Treasury of trillions, sacrificing more young men and women to shore up one of the most corrupt governments on earth, and basically returning to Bush-Cheney land. And that will be a very telling argument in 2012: do we want to go back to Cheneyism? To torture and endless occupation and a third war with a Muslim nation, Iran?
On reflection, Obama was saying something quite simple: one more try, guys. We owe it to those who have sacrificed already to try and finish the job. He has given the effort the full resources it needs at a time of real scarcity. He has given COIN doctrine one more chance to prove itself. He has put Petraeus and McChrystal and the 45 Kagans on notice: prove your case. And in this, I think Obama has found a middle balance that reflects where a lot of us are on this and that also offers a good faith chance for progress - with a good sense exit ramp after a reasonable length of time.
The final piece of the puzzle strikes me as this: the big ramp up in CIA activity in Pakistan. This is the second channel, the one Obama barely mentioned last night. It may be the more important one. My sense is that Obama wants to get bin Laden. Well, of course he does. Which president wouldn't? But the international and domestic impact of such a coup is hard to overstate and Obama's sense of how it would transform him and the entire dynamic of the terror war is typically cunning. I see the Afghan effort as one last chance to get al Qaeda's leadership, to bring justice to the 9/11 perpetrators, while hoping, in the medium term, to tamp down the raw civilizational conflict that empowers them.
As always with Obama, look a little deeper. He has made the very best of a very bad situation. And he is playing a long game for a win or a necessary withdrawal or both. I retain all my doubts; but I give him and Gates and McChrystal and Clinton and the troops all my support for the two years ahead. This much he and they deserve.
One more try, guys.
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