Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama and Afghanistan

I have found all of Bob Woodward's other "insider" portraits of Washington decision-making to be tedious exercises in which the reporter gratifies the self-importance of his subjects. But I am interested in his account of Obama's search for an Afghanistan plan. Obama had promised during his campaign to pull out of Iraq but to press on in Afghanistan. He asked his military advisers to come up with a range of options but Petraeus, McChrystal and company knew what they wanted -- at least 30,000 additional men and an expanded mission -- and essentially refused to offer anything else. Some of Obama's civilian advisers, as we heard at the time, were pushing for a reduced commitment, but the generals said that wouldn't work. Obama, trapped by his own promises and a desire not to seem weak or destroy his relations with the military leaders (always an issue for a liberal president) had no real choice but to go along with what the Pentagon recommended. He accepted their plan but then tacked on his own requirement that the mission begin to wind down in 18 months.

I have written before about our leaders' disturbing habit of embarking on major military ventures (e.g., the invasion of Iraq, the Bay of Pigs) without bothering to talk through the details of what was to be done and why. It seems that Obama also finds this disturbing, and he wanted a thorough review of his options. Unfortunately, by this time the US really had no good options. The debate only led, says Woodward, to
the realization that months of tough debate and hard work had not brought forth a clear solution that everyone could agree on. Even at the end of the process, the president's team wrestled with the most basic questions about the war, then entering its ninth year: What is the mission? What are we trying to do?
In the case of Afghanistan I can understand why we invaded without a clear goal beyond overthrowing the Taliban, since we had just been attacked and a rapid response seemed important. But to have made it through 7 years of war under Bush without any such assessment strikes me as absurd. On the other hand the Pentagon's current plan also strikes me as crazy, since it calls for us to keep the current force level in Afghanistan through 2015 at least, at a cost of $90 billion a year. This just has to end. I fear that it will end with the collapse of the Karzai government, a renewed Taliban takeover, and all the repression that implies, but I am not willing to pay this cost indefinitely.

No comments: