In Afghanistan, Obama Must Choose Between the Evil of Two Lessers

We don’t have a moral obligation to do what is impossible.

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A clock has been quietly ticking away in the Oval Office throughout the hubbub of the upcoming midterm elections: the countdown to withdrawing from Afghanistan. It's supposed to happen around next July if conditions on the ground permit. President Obama has in the meantime been the subject of attacks that seem to me misplaced. Marine Gen. James Conway vented his anxieties that the theoretical deadline was giving sustenance to the Taliban; in his view it will be years before the Afghans are ready to assume full control of security (as the Iraqis have more or less done). Bob Woodward, in his new book Obama's Wars, paints a picture of the president as a reluctant warrior, deeply skeptical of the war, who looked hard for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out.

Many critics have been too ready to jump all over the president for not being totally committed to the war. In fact, the Obama administration did dramatically escalate our military efforts. It has a clear understanding that Afghanistan cannot be allowed to become a safe haven from which al Qaeda again or other extremists can organize effective attacks on the U.S. homeland. Nor can we tolerate Afghanistan becoming the platform from which Pakistan is destabilized, with all the risks that its nuclear arsenal will fall into hostile hands.

We committed ourselves to a major military effort despite the fact that Afghanistan is no longer al Qaeda's primary base of operations, as it was in 2001. That has shifted to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries to the point where al Qaeda is no longer dependent on any one country for its operational base. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda's numbers are insignificant, perhaps 50 to 100 core members, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Securing Afghanistan, in other words, is no longer the solution to al Qaeda.

Obama, who asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity and not a war of choice (contrary to the view of Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations), decided to pursue a much more aggressive strategy than that of the Bush administration, whose goals for Afghanistan were modest. The Bush administration concluded it would be extraordinarily difficult to impose a desirable political solution on Afghanistan, not to speak of the challenge of creating a coalition large enough to control the country. The administration's objective was limited to neutralizing al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. As a result, the United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 with a small, well-funded, covert action program of CIA operators who restored contacts with Afghan tribal leaders and resistance forces; with U.S. Special Forces and air power playing key roles, the coalition managed to topple the Taliban in a matter of weeks.

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Obama, by contrast, made conventional U.S. forces the main combatants in the war against the Taliban. Further, he broadened our objectives to become involved in nation-building. As he put it, "We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." The counterinsurgency strategy that he adopted seeks to win over the population by assuring their security and creating conditions for political stability. The United States took on the daunting challenge of trying to invent a national army where no nation exists, as Afghans tend to fight only for their clans and ethnic groups. The plan sought to isolate militants and engage in a wider effort to develop Afghanistan's economy.

The Obama administration not only changed the direction of the war effort, but increased its scale and costs by tripling the American military effort. This will require the investment of hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years before it succeeds—if it ever does. And that's not counting the thousands of Americans and allied personnel who might be killed or gravely wounded; more than 2,000 members of the U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces have already died. Even now, the astounding cost to the United States has soared to approximately $100 billion annually (at a time when we desperately need investment at home). Compare that to Afghanistan's GDP, which is only one-seventh the total, or $14 billion.