The Magazine

Unfortunately, Failure Is an Option

Barack Obama faces a choice in Afghanistan. The safe middle ground may be the most treacherous.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY and REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Into this mix came Plan B--advanced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others: We could topple Saddam Hussein without overwhelming force, using just the number of troops already available. The plan showed action, but spared the president and the Pentagon the kind of full-scale personnel and budgetary commitment that might have created political waves. And Rumsfeld was right about the punch required to topple Saddam. The deed was done with minimum casualties and in a time frame--six weeks--that was less than expected. In the late spring and summer of 2003, Rumsfeld's approach was hailed as a success--barring the looters' rampage in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam--even by those (virtually everyone on all sides of the issue) who came to criticize him later.

With the advantage of hindsight, it's obvious that Option B was the wrong choice. We did not have sufficient troops to keep the peace and convince the Baathists and the Arab Sunni community that they had permanently lost power. The total victory promised by Option A, which would have cost us much more to launch, could well have prevented the Sunni insurgency, the Shiite counterattack, and the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. The enormous loss of American prestige overseas that began when Iraq went south, the palpable disarray and ennui that consumed the Bush White House, and the real nastiness that defined the American public square during Bush's second term all likely could have been averted. Only Bush's decision to launch a surge coupled with a much more intelligent counterinsurgency strategy saved Iraq from the abyss and the United States from a complete strategic rout in the Middle East.

It's a reasonable guess that President Obama today would prefer the Option B approach reportedly advanced by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and the vice president. Otherwise, he would have stuck with the "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan" he announced in March, after a "careful review" of all options. That first review led to the appointment of General Stanley McChrystal and ultimately his recommendation for more troops. The president may yet have to follow McChrystal's advice, particularly if Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who seems to have signaled his agreement with McChrystal, becomes more outspoken. A presidential disagreement with the entire chain of command can mean real political trouble. But Option B still looms, undoubtedly tempting the president with the promise of cost savings and the possibility that one doesn't really have to be "all in" in war.

The political realities in Afghanistan have changed little since March. The fraud-filled presidential election of Hamid Karzai was hardly a shocker--even the Central Intelligence Agency, whose powers of prognostication on Afghanistan haven't been particularly acute, would have predicted that Karzai and his allies would cheat. This is hardly a legitimate reason for delaying a military decision. If it had been, certainly Ambassador Richard Holbrooke would have loudly and publicly told President Karzai that sticking to democratic norms was critical to continued American support for his government. Nor have the opponents of U.S. involvement in the region ever credited the relative success of Iraqi democracy as a reason why the surge succeeded in that country.

What has changed since the Obama administration's "comprehensive strategy" was announced in March is Washington politics. McChrystal's plan is now not Option B--as one would expect the recommendation of the president's hand-picked general to be. That has become Option A because a strong constituency for Option C has emerged. Senator Robert Byrd laid out the don't-do-it position in a rare recent appearance on the Senate floor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed similar feelings, repeatedly. In the past, a firm rhetorical commitment to the war in Afghanistan was always politically attractive to those who opposed our very real struggle in Iraq. But Afghanistan is decidedly less attractive now that it involves a real force commitment, real casualties, and real budgetary expenditures. And Plan C also has supporters on the right, most notably George Will. With the anti-nation-building, democracy-skeptical right now aligned with the antiwar, bigger-welfare-state left, the president has been forced into a box that he could not have imagined when he campaigned for the presidency on a promise to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.