The Afghanistan Paradox

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This war has come to be inexorably linked to this President. He likes to say that he’s “taking the fight” to the terrorists because it’s “fundamental to the defense of our people.” His strong supporters include Karl Rove, John McCain and Sarah Palin. In Congress, Democratic leaders grate at the idea of granting him more troops and demand timelines for withdrawal of the troops already there. If you’re guessed the war is in Iraq and the President is George W. Bush, you’re wrong. This is the political landscape President Barack Obama now faces on the war in Afghanistan.

When Obama decided to send more troops into Afghanistan there were two schools of thought within the White House, according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from a fact finding mission in Afghanistan at McChrystal’s invitation. One side, led by Vice President Joe Biden, supported remote strikes by drones to keep al Qaeda’s head down; a second group wanted to launch a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and engage in nation building. Obama, who often said on the campaign trail that there is no simple military solution for Afghanistan – that diplomacy and NGOs and the private sector must all be engaged – not unsurprisingly chose the latter.

Therefore, the surge of 21,000 troops was meant to follow the model in Iraq – training Afghan security forces to police their own streets and converting over low- to mid-level insurgents. But, in order for a surge-like strategy to work as it did in Iraq, there must be a push for good governance coupled with the training of security forces. Applying good governance in a place as overtly corrupt as Kabul is a much bigger challenge than it was in Baghdad in no small part due to the deteriorating relationship with Hamid Karzai. “You don’t need to eliminate corruption. You don’t need to cashier every power broker associated with the Afghan government,” Biddle told reporters on a conference call. “You need to make visible, demonstrable progress somewhere in some key area to prove that you know how and to prove that the means at our disposal are sufficient to make a difference and to move the situation. If you can’t do that, I don’t think we’ll be able to persuade key audiences in the United States and the clock will run out.”

Rome fought nearly constant wars at its peak, though its denizens didn’t mind the casualties so much because they came with plundered treasures (and most of the casualties weren’t actually Roman). Even Bush’s war in Iraq had the, at least perceived, side benefit of oil. But 9/11 has become a distant memory in voters’ minds and the war in Afghanistan feels more like a humanitarian mission than a war of necessity – a luxury we can ill afford. If Obama chooses to double down, he’ll have to crystallize his case for waging war, and losing American lives there, before it becomes an albatross for Democrats the way Iraq brought Bush and the Republicans down. After all, said presidential historian Brian Balogh at the University of Virginia, Obama would do well to remember, “It was not Republicans who brought down Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, it was his own party.”