The Obama campaign four years ago called Afghanistan the 'right war' and Iraq the 'wrong war.' Those who sat on top of the foreign policy/national security food chain in Washington were those who drew their power from the Afghanistan conflict. Former National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, General David Petraeus, then US Ambassador to Afghanistant General Karl Eikenberry, General Stanley McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and others leaned in to the Afghanistan terrain in part because it was a national priority but also because that was where status could be claimed.
But as Walt describes, few are talking about Afghanistan today even though Obama administration supporters of the war incessantly justified it with rationalizations about preventing a state-sized terrorist safe haven, supporting Afghan women's rights, spreading democracy, or shoring up US credibility.
When Obama was considering 'surging' US troop levels in Afghanistan up by 30,000 more military personnel, there were many who counseled against it -- inside the administration like Vice President Joe Biden and many others outside. They counseled against the deeper investment of US lives and resources not on pacifist grounds but through realistic calculations of costs and benefits.
The strategic class in Washington had decided to make Afghanistan the war it wanted -- and upped the annual cost of the conflict to more than $120 billion a year i a country with a $14 billion GDP. Nations like Iran, China, Pakistan, and others watched America draw itself more deeply into a conflict that was telegraphing military overstretch to allies and foes alike.
I once asked a senior policy planner from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs what China's grand strategy was -- and he half-joked that China simply counted on the US to remain distracted in small Middle Eastern countries.
Editorials ranging from the very liberal The Nation to the much more conservative, Nixonian-realist-right The National Interest suggested that Afghanistan could break the back of the Obama administration and sacrifice American internationalism while energizing a resurgent isolationism.
Some like me argued that it was impossible to prevail in Afghanistan when America was at war with Pakistan's allies and proxies -- and when the solution required as my colleague Steve Coll has often written, a real rapprochement between India and Pakistan, which I didn't believe would be possible within a period of budget-patience by frustrated and increasingly job-stressed American tax-payers.
Now the strategic class is running for cover. There are no well-known names who have staked their credibility on achieving success in Afghanistan. On Obama's national security team, General Doug Lute stands out as one who has remained in the mix, but he's not a well-known policy star outside of the Afghanistan policy ghetto. Marc Grossman, who succeeded Richard Holbrooke, is another at the State Department. One other is Petraeus and McChrystal successor ISAF Commander General John Allen who is rarely in the media other than apologizing for wayward drone strikes or military missions that went awry. But no others posture themselves as Afghanistan policy czars today because they know it's a sinking ship and disaster.
If there was justice in foreign policy, people like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Stephen Walt, Paul Pillar, former Senator Chuck Hagel, Vice President Joe Biden, Anatol Lieven, Flynt Leverett, Juan Cole, Sherle Schwenninger, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Michael Lind, Lawrence Wilkerson and others would be given salutes for having offered important but neglected counsel when the US ramped up a war that would never be worth more than its staggering costs -- higher even today with this news of seven more US soldiers dead.