Posted by: Jeff | December 2, 2009

The Gamble, Literally

Joe and I recorded a new podcast in reaction to Obama’s Afghanistan speech last night, which I’m currently cutting and will have up as fast as humanly possible. In the meantime, it was gratifying to wake up this morning and find that a lot of commentators whom I respect had echoed the same points we discussed. Here’s Dan Drezner and Ezra Klein, for instance, on how this surge (as I guess you could call it) in Afghanistan is not really all that analogous to the surge in Iraq.

But two key things I really want to highlight (at the risk of spoiling the podcast) were brought up in The New Republic. The first is from Michael Crowley:

Tonight’s date-specific language sounds like a sop to voters and members of Congress fed up with the war and understandably convinced that we have no clear exit strategy. But the pledge is a largely empty one: In a conference call today, White House officials made it amply clear that the extent and pace of any drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. Theoretically, Obama’s promise tonight could entail withdrawing 100 troops in July 2011 and pulling out the rest ten years later. Much as the White House wants to deny it, what we’ve got here is an open-ended commitment.

When you combine that point with this observation from Steven Metz, on one way the Bush and Obama surges are similar, you get a pretty frightening result:

In Iraq, President Bush bet that the Maliki government would rein in sectarian violence, and that the Iraqi Security Forces were nearly ready to assume responsibility for their nation’s security. This panned out. Now President Obama is making the same bet. His strategy is contingent on the Afghan security forces, bolstered by increased assistance from the U.S. military, being able to conduct counterinsurgency on its own by 2011. Even more importantly, Obama’s plan is contingent on the Karzai government’s reining in its crushing corruption and addressing the myriad problems that the Afghan people face. If the Afghan security forces or the Karzai government are not up to the task, nothing the United States can do will matter. A surge of 20,000, 30,000, or 100,000 would be equally irrelevant. Unfortunately, only President Karzai and the Afghan security forces can determine whether the Obama strategy works. Our fate is in their hands.

I would add that another critical variable is how good a job the government in Pakistan does of dealing with Al Qaeda and the other Taliban-related extremist groups on their side of the border. And Pakistan’s record so far on this is actually a lot more complex and problematic than Obama let on in his speech last night.

So what we have here is a situation in which whether the mid-2011 withdrawal date means anything, or whether we’re going to be leaving 100,000 or so American troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity, is dependent on circumstances on the ground. And those circumstances will, in turn, be driven by two factors – primarily the performance of the Karzai government, and to a lesser extent the cooperation of Pakistan – which are effectively outside of American control. So this is a gamble in the most literal sense of the term. We are betting a huge amount of American blood and treasure on the outcome of factors over which we have no power. And we are doing it at a time when our financial stability is already in serious jeopardy, our military resources are already heavily burdened and our political will is already stretched thin. And our fate is not in our hands.

And that I think should scare Americans to death. It scares me. And it’s why, at this juncture, I cannot escape the conclusion that Obama has just made a bad, and quite possibly catastrophic, decision.


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