The one option president Obama never contemplated in reviewing the horrendous Af-Pak inheritance bequeathed by Bush and Cheney was ending the war. This was bizarre since his candidacy would never have occurred without the ill-judged, dreadfully managed and ultimately hopeless wars of occupation and attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan waged by his predecessors. And yet Obama, cautious as ever, ruled real withdrawal out from the get-go. Maybe the risk was too great of a terror attack at home being used by the neocons and the Dolchstoss camp. Maybe the risk of a terror attack, whatever the response of the neocons, was too high. But the next best option - Biden's proposal - was junked for more of the COIN same. Kevin Sullivan has a must-read this morning on this:
There are actually a multitude of options in Afghanistan, but none of them will ever appear viable so long as we cling to an amorphous definition of "victory" there. To my recollection, what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan was not at all "light footprint," but rather, under-resourced occupation. They wanted to keep troop casualties low, but they also wanted to pacify the country. They pushed for elections, but then provided no sustainable security arrangement to actually guarantee a democratic Kabul's legitimacy.
This policy - which even the Bush administration would later scrutinize - is not what Biden had proposed last fall. His suggestion was to contain Afghan radicalism, draw down forces and continue drone strikes on militant targets throughout the greater Af-Pak region. If you support such a strategy (as I do, albeit reluctantly), then you certainly aren't concerned about dressing Afghanistan up as a functional democracy, because it clearly isn't one.
But critics can't live in a counterfactual dream world where the White House actually engages the public in a serious debate over the War on Terror, because that moment has passed. While we all question the job security of one general, we should at least, in fairness, congratulate the COINdinistas for what appears to be a vise-like grip on U.S. foreign policy thinking.
Counter-insurgency in a country as vast and as remote as Afghanistan is in no way comparable to counter-insurgency in Sunni Arab regions of Iraq where al Qaeda had already over-stayed its welcome. The face-saving virtues of the surge in Iraq - and the illusion of political self-government there that isn't destined to devolve into either sectarian war or a Shiite strongman - do not exist in Afghanistan. There is even less of a credible government in that graveyard of empires than there is in Iraq; there is a stolen election and a corrupt leader. There is no way out in any foreseeable future that can be spun as some kind of success.
The question at hand is therefore whether we are prepared to stay there as long as the British in the nineteenth century and with the same result. Or whether we are prepared to live with the limits of American power. I always thought of Obama as a pragmatist. On this, he's as ideologically closed off as the Bushies.