Reading tea leaves is a dangerous business when it comes to a new administration. There is always a fair amount of floundering around that comes from having too few senior people in place, unsettled policymaking processes, and indecision over which campaign promises to keep and which to toss overboard.
Take, for example, the Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan. While running for president, Barack Obama promised that help was on its way in the form of thousands of additional troops; now President Obama appears to have put his own promised surge on hold.
The ostensible reason is that the new administration wants to have a thorough review of Afghan policy before making that decision. On its face, reasonable enough--although America's civilian and military agencies spent much of last year undertaking such reviews in order to recommend policy options to the new administration.
Nonetheless, comments from senior administration officials in recent days suggest that "the review" might already have its conclusion in hand: U.S. goals for Afghanistan will be trimmed and the size of our commitment limited. The new buzz words being tossed around by administration strategists and military advisers are realism, attainable, end game, and even "How do we get out?"
The crux of the matter is that while candidate Obama could claim the Bush administration had taken its eye off the 9/11 ball when it went to war with Iraq, once Obama's own eye turned to Afghanistan, he discovered a difficult conflict that will require a generational commitment and sustained investment in building civilian and military institutions. Faced with that fact, it appears President Obama might blink, not wanting to own a war that could possibly eat up his administration's time and energy and which liberals in his own party are losing the stomach to prosecute.
This is ironic. Opponents of invading Iraq portrayed Afghanistan as "the good war," and the necessary one. And there is no question that Saddam Hussein's armies were more formidable military opponents than its cave-dwelling Taliban counterparts. Now, however, as in Alice's Wonderland, everything is upside down: Iraq has become the winnable war, and Afghanistan the quagmire.
But is lowering the bar in Afghanistan a workable strategy? Does de-emphasizing the building of a capable, democratic Afghan state, moving away from a full-scale counterinsurgency effort, and focusing instead on keeping the Taliban and al Qaeda at bay lead, in Vice President Biden's words, to "a stable Afghanistan that is not a haven for terrorists"? More likely it results in an Afghanistan that is unstable, balkanized, and home to more, not fewer, terrorists. The real, on-the-ground choice is between a democratic Afghanistan whose governance extends throughout the whole country or no legitimate government at all, with every man, family, tribe, and ethnic group looking out for its own.
In a balkanized Afghanistan, cooperation between U.S. and Afghan security forces will be uncertain and make the job of rooting out radical Taliban and al Qaeda elements more difficult. In such an Afghanistan, the Taliban, with access to millions upon millions in drug money and willing to be as ruthless as necessary, will have the upper hand when it comes to securing the "cooperation" of the Afghan population.
Perhaps a stratagem of lowered expectations might work if the United States were willing to act as Britain did when it was the colonial power. But how likely is that? Would either the American public or its military support trying to establish a balance of power within Afghanistan by playing off one warlord or tribe against another? It seems doubtful. And, lest we forget, in the end it didn't work for the British either.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is right to say that "if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla [in Afghanistan], we will lose." But that is a straw man: No one expects Afghanistan to become, as the phrase was often used by critics in Iraq, some sort of "Jeffersonian democracy." Nevertheless, failing to establish a functioning and accountable Afghan state, as difficult as that may be, is a recipe for losing the war.
A minimalist military surge, as some within the administration are advocating, cannot succeed in securing our strategic goal of an Afghanistan able to deny safe haven to terrorists. A pseudo-surge of this sort, followed by trimming our commitment, will send exactly the wrong signals to (1) the Taliban, who know they only have to wait us out, (2) our allies, many of whom are already looking for ways to edge away from the mission, (3) Afghanistan's neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan, who will intensify their support for the Taliban or other tribal factions so as to secure their interests, and (4) the Afghan people, who will find it increasingly risky to cooperate with the Afghan government and international forces if it appears that the Taliban will outlast both.
At the recent Munich Security Conference, General David Petraeus, former commanding general in Iraq and now Central Command's lead officer, laid out a sensible strategy. In his words, the Afghan people are the decisive "terrain" in this struggle--implying that a focus on finding and fighting Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents is viewing the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Our strategy, instead, must focus on protecting the population and connecting them with the Afghan state. Giving short shrift to that mission--by failing to put sufficient boots on the ground, provide the level of assistance needed, implement a comprehensive civil-military campaign plan, tackle pervasive corruption, or invest in building Afghan governing capacity--will only make it more likely that we will face a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.
As difficult as all this might be, the particular irony in the administration's possibly emerging verdict that building a democratic state in Afghanistan is too hard is that Afghans themselves disagree. Recent polling by the Asia Foundation shows that, despite insecurity and misgovernance, 78 percent of Afghans still believe democracy is the best form of government, and 65 percent believe free and fair elections can deliver a better future. But only 38 percent of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction--because of the pervasive insecurity and corruption that characterize life there today. Afghans have not given up on democracy; it would be a sad and self-defeating commentary if we did.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Twining
is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.