The Magazine

Pashtuns and Pakistanis

A not-so-great game, but one America can't give up.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The war in Afghanistan obviously isn't going well. Depressing critiques from all quarters underscore Afghanistan's appalling poverty, warlordism, religious conservatism, corruption, poppy fields, and retrograde matrix of ethnicity and tribe. Many of those who wanted to cut and run from Iraq have become similarly anxious about what, at least until November 2008, they saw as a better war. The stay-and-fight crowd is still the more powerful in Washington, but armed tenacity is an unnatural position for many pro-war liberals and some post-Cold War conservatives. Their support of President Barack Obama's war could wane. The prospect of a long conflict in a Muslim country could be daunting.

To see that this war is worth fighting is not to deny that Afghanistan could become even more demanding than George W. Bush's "war of choice." Topography alone could make the conflict more wearing: Some of the most violent areas of Afghanistan have some of the world's most formidable terrain. Iraq is a nation of well-paved roads; Afghanistan is a rough, rolling sea of rocks and dirt. Like the Bush administration on Iraq, the Obama administration has yet to be frank about what an American commitment to the war in Central Asia will cost. No Larry Lindsey has yet arisen in the Obama White House and spoken truth to power. We could soon have 100,000 soldiers deployed, and we could have them there for years. Comparisons between the United States in Vietnam and in Afghanistan are for the most part surreal (the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had the Soviet Union behind them), but the image of helicopters flying over jungles will soon be matched--if the Obama administration is serious about fighting--by a horizon of helicopters flying over Afghanistan's parched mountains, verdant river valleys, and stacked-rock towns and villages.

We plan on massively augmenting the size of the Afghan army and police since we want them eventually to replace us. Perhaps 300,000 armed locals may be required. Afghanistan has no history of raising, let alone sustaining, such organized national forces. The cost of training and providing logistical support to Afghan units can't be fully calculated yet, but it is clear that Afghanistan cannot pay for what it desperately needs. It cannot do so even if Kabul legalizes the production and export of opium, a policy that the United States and many Europeans would oppose.

And it's most unlikely that Obama will be able to guilt-trip the Europeans into spending more. It will be a diplomatic miracle if the administration can just keep them contributing what they do now. Obama, who regularly chastised the Bush administration for its supposedly unrivaled capacity to alienate our allies, could well oversee the de facto dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. European leaders have clearly shown that Obama's election didn't make them any more willing to put their troops into combat.

Left-wing economists will soon be tabulating mind-boggling sums for the conflict, with all its remotely possible collateral costs. Senator Obama found such arithmetic for Iraq appealing; it may prove uncomfortable for him to make arguments for Afghanistan that sound, to borrow from Mother Jones's David Corn, "slightly reminiscent of what the Bush-Cheney gang tried to pull off when they were pushing the case for invading Iraq." And some of the president's arguments on Afghanistan will be less compelling. Politically, Iraq is an enormously influential country in the Middle East (its post-Saddam impact on Iran may already have been substantial); Afghanistan remains a cultural and intellectual backwater, even for Pakistanis who can't resist trying to draw their northern neighbor into a great game with India.