In November of 1986, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Politburo about his country’s futile war in Afghanistan. The conflict had already dragged on for six years, Gorbachev told his comrades, but no end was in sight. “In general, we haven’t found the key to resolving this problem,” the communist leader explained, according to Gregory Feifer’s book, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. “We need to finish this process as soon as possible.” That was especially true in a nation whose economy was groaning from the expense of the war. Soon after, Gorbachev informed American officials that the Soviets would begin their exit from Afghanistan.
Gorbachev’s retreat from Central Asia was an admission of defeat and a sign that the Soviet era was coming to a close. For Barack Obama and the United States, the picture is not so dire. Not quite. But the president’s announcement last night that he will withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by next summer, and that the U.S. combat mission there will end by 2014, was also an admission about waning power. Obama understands that, after 10 years of war and an economic catastrophe, America has neither the will nor the resources to continue an all-out fight in Afghanistan. When George W. Bush fought on stubbornly to rescue Iraq, he had the luxury of a relatively healthy economy and a national debt that Obama would envy. But America can no longer win at all costs. The bills are stacking up, the patience is running out. Obama sent a message when he promised steady draw down without any reference to “conditions on the ground”: Maybe this time failure is an option.
This is not a commentary on Obama’s fortitude, or about his determination to defeat al Qaeda. The killing of Osama bin Laden answers that silly question. Moreover, a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday that it’s been at least seven years since a serious al Qaeda threat to the U.S. homeland has emerged from Afghanistan, and that fewer than 75 al Qaeda fighters are in the country today, mostly embedded within the Haqqani network and focused on attacking U.S. troops in the region, not Manhattan or Washington. The difference between the Americans and the Soviets is that we have achieved one important goal, which is eradicating al Qaeda’s presence from Afghanistan.
But the other key goal is preventing the Taliban from re-conquering Afghanistan and potentially allowing al Qaeda to create a new safe haven in the country. And in its discussion of timelines and its promise that “the tide of war is receding,” Obama’s speech made no allowances for what happens if, say, the Taliban threaten to take Kabul in the spring of 2013. Would he surge again? Nothing in his speech makes it seem likely.
Does that make Obama a “declinist”? Republicans are already saying so. But it might also be evidence of his innate pragmatism. Obama saw a waning threat, a rising debt, a restless public, and a mounting death toll. Surely he remembers the warnings from some of his top advisors that an exit on anything but favorable terms could hand Islamic radicals a propaganda and recruiting prize, just as it did when the last Soviet troops crossed the steel Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan on February 16, 1989. But he also knows that America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the awful civilian deaths that result, is itself a recruiting tool, not to mention that out scarce resources might be better devoted to fighting al Qaeda in havens like Somalia and Yemen.
Commentators will fixate on the military dimensions of Obama’s new policy. In truth the test for him now is the far more complicated political settlement of which he spoke. That is a huge diplomatic challenge, an elaborate dance between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and our frenemies in Islamabad. A real long term solution will likely involve Delhi as well, and even Tehran. In the coming days Obama’s conservative critics will talk at length about David Petraeus’s frustrations. But what matters more is this game of three-dimensional diplomatic chess. The Soviets, too, thought they could arrange a face-saving political solution, one that also involved Pakistan’s deep involvement. They were proven wrong when the country soon devolved to a horrendous civil war that wiped out their political allies. Obama’s challenge now is to avoid a repeat of that history. And to achieve diplomatically what seems futile militarily: an outcome that will prevent America’s adventure in Afghanistan from being recorded as another revelation of a great power’s decline.