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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When one considers the likely arguments in the "decision memorandum" it is not hard to see why the White House staff are inclined toward Option B. The McChrystal strategy of adding 40,000 troops, which is itself scaled down from an option asking for an additional 80,000 troops, will put real strain on both military manpower and the budget. Commandants of both the Army and Marines recently opined that they could produce only 30,000 additional personnel in the near term. Unmentioned in most press reports is the likely budgetary impact of the McChrystal option. A force of roughly 105,000 troops in Afghanistan would carry about the same financial commitment as the peak 160,000 force we had in Iraq. Afghanistan is both a more difficult place to supply and a more difficult place in which to move forces. Surrounded by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, and the former Soviet Union to the north, it increasingly requires air transport for U.S. and allied forces. The critical resupply line through Pakistan is not secure, and the Pentagon has been trying mightily to find alternative land routes that could reduce costs. All of these scenarios require logistical support from Russia and at least one of the "stans" to the north. Earlier this year the Russians applied pressure to make us up the ante to maintain our Central Asian resupply lines. At any time, Moscow can do so again.

Inside Afghanistan, effective full-scale operations would require a fleet of helicopters at least as large as that used in Vietnam. This would involve both an up-front procurement expense and higher operational costs than in Iraq where ground transportation is relatively easy. At a minimum, the McChrystal plan would cost in the range of $8 billion to $10 billion a month, roughly twice what is now being expended. Throw in additional procurement in the $20 billion to $30 billion range over the next three years, and it becomes clear that the Afghanistan commitment would involve expenditures on the order of what Iraq has been costing. And this would come at a time when savings from a wind down of Iraqi operations are yet to materialize. The Afghanization of the war, moreover, would likely prove even more expensive than the reconstruction and retraining of the Iraqi Army since there actually was the tradition of an Iraqi Army, while in Afghanistan we are constructing a force out of what historically were fragmented and fratricidal militias.

So a full-scale operation in Afghanistan will require an additional budgetary commitment similar to what Iraq has ended up costing--not the lesser commitment that the Bush administration first assumed. But the economic and budgetary environment in which that commitment is being made is much worse now. President Bush faced a budget deficit that was roughly 5 percent of GDP and falling rapidly. Obama faces a budget deficit of 10 percent of GDP and likely to remain in the 7 percent to 8 percent of GDP range as far as the eye can see. Adding another roughly 0.6 percent or 0.7 percent of GDP to the annual deficit was not a serious risk in 2003. Today, it is potentially the straw that breaks the camel's back.

On the other hand, Option C is hardly attractive either. The issue is not whether Afghanistan is the proverbial graveyard of empires. None of the nations that has engaged in Afghanistan has done so because of the particular real estate it occupies. Each has done so because of the neighborhood in which the real estate sits. The British were in Afghanistan because of India. The Russians were in Afghanistan because Leonid Brezhnev really believed in the slippery slope--that Communist regimes, no matter how lame, should not fall, especially to neighboring third-world Islamic guerrillas.

A dyed-in-the-wool optimist might call Afghanistan a strategic asset. That would, however, take a level of salesmanship in Washington that even the perkiest real estate agent might have difficulty mustering. A more truthful real estate agent might say that, absent an American presence there, the "wrong type" of people might own the place, and if they did, "there goes the neighborhood."

As the military strategist Stephen Biddle and the counterterrorism analyst Peter Bergen trenchantly pointed out in recent essays in the New Republic, the various scenarios envisioning fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a greater reliance on Afghan forces, more focus on Pakistan, an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy, and a modus vivendi with the supposedly "good" Taliban against the pro-al Qaeda "bad" Taliban make no sense whatsoever. Only more U.S. troops offer the possibility of success against the Taliban, who have become the cutting-edge of al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without more U.S. troops, it's only a matter of time--probably not much time--before the Taliban have effective control of as much territory as when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996.

Without a U.S. surge, the odds of the Pakistani Army and civilian elite remaining firm in a gut-wrenching fight against their own deeply embedded Islamic radicalism are poor. And without more troops, the United States is looking at the serious possibility that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will in any meaningful way cease to exist. The Europeans will abandon Afghanistan if we don't go "all in"; they are on the verge of quitting now. It's become chic in leftwing European circles to say that the transatlantic alliance has no relevance in a post-Cold War world. The reality of this, if Afghanistan descends into civil war and the Americans and Europeans retreat into their welfare states, may not be pretty. "Who lost Afghanistan?" will define the transatlantic conversation. The last time we saw a cash-strapped self-centered isolationist Europe and a cash-strapped self-centered isolationist United States was the 1930s.

Option C, then, at bottom amounts to an acceptance that the U.S. intervention on the ground in Afghanistan is doomed. All that is left is to manage an exit strategy so as to least weaken the American position in the world.

Enveloping all three options, of course, is uncertainty--the same uncertainty that President Bush faced when he decided to depose Saddam Hussein. There is no hard-and-fast progression of events that is bound to flow from a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, though the sheer magnitude of unattractive possibilities that might well unfold is sobering. Obama confronts the curse that belongs to presidents: a choice between options whose outcomes cannot be foreknown.

If there were only two options before the president--withdrawing from Afghanistan and writing an annual check of $100 billion to guarantee that Pakistan would stay on a reasonably pro-Western path and the Taliban would not take over Kabul--it is quite likely that the president, indeed any president, would write the check. Despite the economic risks in the current budget environment, a few tenths of a percent of GDP is really a bargain for eliminating the possibilities of nuclear armed Islamic terrorists, a destabilized or radicalized Pakistan, and a potential nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent.

But reality is not so simple. Writing the check will involve the loss of American lives. Perhaps more important, it cannot guarantee what will happen in Pakistan or in Iran. It is in this context that Option B becomes attractive. On the one hand there is a significant chance of potentially catastrophic consequences from a withdrawal. On the other hand, there is the lack of assurance that even a very costly intervention will produce acceptable results. The crafters of Option B therefore offer lower costs and, they claim, a reasonable chance of success. Relative to Option A's "all in," the lower costs are a certainty, but the reduction in the possibility of ultimate success is intangible--assuming the White House downplays General McChrystal's warning that "continued underresourcing will likely cause failure." Relative to Option C, the appearance of doing something to stop a bad outcome earns immediate praise for prudence and deliberation, and does not foreclose the possibility of future course corrections.

What will not be mentioned in the decision memorandum is that, historically speaking, Option B has almost never succeeded. It almost always morphs into some version of either Option A or Option C. Consider Iraq. The failure of 2004-07, as the insurgency took off, led to the surge, after the president and his administration had paid a huge political price. President Johnson tried calibrating the Vietnam war, even deciding which targets in North Vietnam would be hit. Option B tends not to work because the more moderate effort it contemplates takes more time. The American people are generally willing to go to war and make the sacrifices necessary where there is a clear and certain objective that involves protecting the homeland. Option B by its very nature obfuscates. As time drags on, support for the effort flags, and the president must either ramp up operations to have a chance of success or back away entirely from the effort.

President Obama and his staff are doing their best to think through their options. Bush and his staff, Kennedy and Johnson and their best-and-brightest subordinates, did the same. Establishment opinion, often articulated most forcefully by former West Wing staffers themselves, will defend the process and the decision. And given the remoteness and frustrating strangeness of Afghanistan, Option B is an alluring choice. But we've been down this road before. Both history and organizational behavior tell us B is not the best option. It almost certainly is not the final strategy the nation will settle on. But for Barack Obama and his war-weary congressional allies, appreciation of the painful irony may come too late.

Lawrence B. Lindsey served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush White Houses and at the Federal Reserve during the Clinton administration. His most recent book is What a President Should Know .  .  . but Most Learn Too Late. Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.