As Gen. David Petraeus kicks off an extended media blitz intended to
make Americans feel better about the war in Afghanistan -- or at least
give him some more time to fight it -- he faces a foe more implacable
than al Qaeda, or even the Taliban: Reality.
That reality, increasingly obvious to national security experts and
the general public alike, is that no amount of good intentions or
firepower is going to advance our fundamental interests in Afghanistan
-- and that as much as Petraeus might be able to achieve in the next six
months, or a year, little to none of it is sustainable and most of it
is, even worse, counterproductive.
U.S. taxpayers are spending vast amounts of money on the war -- over
$200 million a day for military operations alone. Our troops work
tirelessly, fight and die to protect and build up the people and
institutions of Afghanistan.
But how that turns into success remains wildly unclear. And even more
importantly, the relationship between what we're doing on a day to day
basis and our ostensible goal -- keeping America safe from al Qaeda --
seems increasingly tenuous.
In the first of many planned interviews, Petraeus will tell NBC's David Gregory
on "Meet the Press" on Sunday that his intention is "to show those in
Washington that there is progress being made" and to persuade
decision-makers "that we've got to build on the progress that has been
established so far."
But what Petraeus can't do is say with any confidence that this
"progress" can be sustained. Nor can he connect it to an actual threat
to our national security.
By contrast, in a reflection of an emerging new consensus in the
national security community, a self-styled "Team B" on Afghanistan
strategy is advocating much narrower goals and reduced military
commitment in the region.
According to an advance copy of the group's forthcoming report, "the
war in Afghanistan has reached a critical crossroads. Our current path
promises to have limited impact on the civil war while taking more
American lives and contributing to skyrocketing taxpayer debt. We
conclude that a fundamentally new direction is needed."
The report represents the views of about 40 influential national
security figures from academia, think tanks and the business community.
Organizer Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation said the group is
varied in its makeup, but unified by its doubts about the current
Its survey of the landscape concludes: "We are mired in a civil war
in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central
government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized.
No matter how desirable this objective might be in the abstract, it is
not essential to U.S. security and it is not a goal for which the U.S.
military is well suited. There is no clear definition of what would
comprise 'success' in this endeavor, and creating a unified Afghan state
would require committing many more American lives and hundreds of
billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come."
"General Petraeus is a smart man and he attracts smart people and I
know that since he's been given this onerous duty, he's been looking at
at least tactical and operational shifts," said Patrick Cronin, a South
Asian expert at the Center for a New American Security and one of the
contributors to the report. "But what he isn't addressing is the need
for a new political strategy."
Cronin said Petraeus's target audience "shouldn't buy into this military incrementalism. 'Six months more' is not a strategy."
Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American
Progress, said he is worried that members of the Obama administration
have lost sight of what he calls the fundamental question: "Are we
actually keeping Americans safe?"
"Are we actually preventing people from flying planes into our buildings?"
"Some of the most striking arguments for continuing the conflict are
actually sunk costs and national pride and honor," Katulis said. We keep
going because "we've spent so much and it would be such an awful thing
not to justify the costs and lives."
The war's goal at this point seems to be establishing overall
stability in the country. But among the many other problems, Katulis
said, there's no good way to measure that; officers on the ground are
reduced to tallying things like the number of stores open at night, or
the number of shoppers at a market.
That sort of metric leads Katulis and other national security experts
to wonder: What does that have to do with the security of our own
country? And to the extent that it does, is it really the best use of
our resources? What about the threats to our homeland developing in
other parts of the world?
Cronin said Petraeus should be forced to explain not just what he
intends to do, but how it can be sustained. If he drives the Taliban out
of one region -- "if we do sacrifice those lives to do that" -- it
still "doesn't put us on a sustainable glidepath," he said.
"Petraeus wants to buy more time, because he needs time to
demonstrate that what he's doing can have a positive effect," Cronin
said. "But it doesn't have a large enough positive effect, and it's too
costly in terms of blood and treasure."
"Yes, there are different views of this war," he added, "but if you
look at enough of the evidence, you can't be sanguine that we are indeed
winning hearts and minds" -- which is a critical goal of Petraeus's
counter-insurgency strategy. In fact, Cronin said, the evidence suggests
that we are making ourselves "even less popular than the Taliban... we
are making them stronger, and what we're doing is not effective enough."
With al Qaeda essentially gone from Afghanistan, "the original
purpose has largely dissipated," Cronin said. "This strategy is actually
being counterproductive for our interests."
Katulis also notes that the administration's plan still lacks a
clear, positive goal. "If you go through all of the senior
administration officials' talking points, they often define the goal as a
The most senior administration official
is fond of saying things like: "I've set a clear and achievable mission
-- to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies
and prevent their return"
But, said Katulis, "that doesn't actually tell us what it is we actually have to leave behind."
Petraeus is said the be starting to hedge on President Obama's promised deadline of July 2011 for withdrawing American troops.
That's hardly surprising. As I reported two weeks ago,
the timeline for an American troop withdrawal has steadily been growing
longer for some time, with Obama's deadline looking more and more
hollow, and the real timeline for significant troop withdrawal --
barring a change in course -- now extending at least to 2014, if not far
But from Cronin's perspective, Obama had a year to turn things
around, and it's already over. "That's enough empirical evidence to know
if there is something that can be salvaged here," he said.
Cronin said the "Team B" solution is "something in between what we've
been doing and complete abandonment. It's not that it's a guarantee of
success, but we've got to recognize that what we're doing now is not
Cronin said U.S. national security does not depend on the military
defeat of the Taliban, or on a strong central government. The plan
instead calls for power-sharing, and for a smaller military presence
that focuses on keeping al Qaeda at bay.
So if it's increasingly clear outside the military and the executive
branch that a radical reassessment of the war is necessary, why isn't it
"If there's one thing that drives the current officer corps in our
military it's that they want to avoid the sense of a loss, and
perception of another Vietnam," Katulis said.
As for inside the White House, "there's the political and rhetorical box that they themselves have set," Katulis said.
It's also possible that Obama is thinking things he just can't say out loud.
"Our Afghan partners are just not up to the task of what we would
like to see," said Cronin. "You can't say that as a government when
you're knee deep in a war. But at the end of the day, you have to be
realistic about U.S. interests."
And as long as the war is being fought, "the president can't afford
to look incoherent on this," Cronin said. "This president in particular,
because he'll be attacked from the right, has to look strong on this
Obama "can't afford to have Joe Biden and others leading an ongoing
critique of the war" which is why he "put a lid on that last year,"
Cronin said. Nevertheless, "I think the reality is that inside the
administration there continue to be serious people with serious doubts
about where this is heading."
But there's yet another force preventing Obama from pivoting,
according to Katulis: The possibility that, after he reduces the
military footprint in Afghanistan, someone from that country then comes
to the U.S. and commits and act of terror.
Staying in Afghanistan for that reason, however, is strikingly
reminiscent of former Vice President Cheney's notorious "One Percent
Doctrine," as described in the Ron Suskind book
by that name. Cheney's basic view was that if there's even a one
percent threat of a "high-impact" terrorist event, then the government
should respond as if it were a certainty. That led to a lot of overkill.
Cronin said he thinks the president doesn't have much choice. "I
think there are fewer and fewer people who are willing to give just a
blank check for what's going on," he said.
And Cronin said he thinks Obama "can find a way to make this
politically more palatable" by following through with his promised July
2011 drawdown, continuing to make the case for a pivot toward a more
diplomatic, less military-intensive strategy. And he can make the case
that "there are plenty of other threats out in the world that we're
ignoring because of this."
Afghanistan is overkill in the wrong place, Katulis said. "We're
really running a risk of having a national security strategy that is not
in balance globally."