Agonizing Over Afghanistan

Agonizing Over Afghanistan

By David Shribman - October 31, 2009

It may be that a swift resolution to the Afghanistan debate is essential. It may be that political pressures make delay unappealing or even impossible. It may be that President Barack Obama's growing reputation for leisurely consideration and for easy compromise requires him to make a brisk ruling on American policy in Afghanistan.

But this is incontrovertibly true: The Obama administration and the American people are not remotely prepared to make a thoughtful, intelligent choice about what to do in central Asia. To make a deeply considered decision, the administration and Americans need to have, and resolve, five debates:

A debate about the connection between the Taliban and al-Qaida.

At the heart of the president's decision is a reckoning whether the Taliban and al-Qaida, so intimately intertwined in 2000 and 2001, continue to have interlocking directorates, or at least close ties. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is arguing that allied policy ought to be directed against al-Qaida, the notion being that some Taliban influence in Afghanistan can be tolerated. Others believe the Taliban remains basically an enabler for al-Qaida. Both cannot be true. And no true way forward can be developed without a certain resolution of this question.

A debate about the connection between the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

They each call themselves the Taliban, but the similar name may mask important differences. In Afghanistan, the Taliban's opposition is the Americans; in Pakistan, it's the ruling regime. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is working to reinstate an Islamist state; in Pakistan, the goal is not so clear. We think, but do not know, that the two are not separate arms of one movement. We think, but do not know, that there are strains between them. All this leads to the conclusion that if the United States is going to fight a war, it ought to know whom it is fighting.

A debate about a free society's ability to conduct a lengthy war when there is no apparent daily threat.

There are two parts to this debate. The first involves the length of the Afghan conflict, already longer than World War II. The Vietnam experience suggested that a democratic society has limited patience for a lengthy military conflict. But Vietnam was a different sort of war, and the American toll was far greater. And though we speak easily of today's 24-hour news cycle, the truth is that the coverage of Vietnam was far greater, and far more prominent, than coverage of Afghanistan has been. So two of the factors that limited American tolerance in Southeast Asia aren't factors in Central Asia.

The corollary question is the threat. This is more complicated. Surely we believe that al-Qaida presents a greater threat to American security than the Viet Cong did in 1972 and after. We saw the bitter fruit of al-Qaida's work on live television in 2001. But we don't see the face of al-Qaida often and may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security since the frightful events of 9/11. At the same time, the gravest threat from al-Qaida may be comparable to the gravest threat that smart men believed the Viet Cong posed in 1964 and 1965, before the Domino Theory was discredited. They thought the security of ordinary Americans in their homes and communities was at stake in Vietnam.

In any case, all the Vietnam comparisons and all the current calculations have not led to a consensus in the United States about the stakes in Afghanistan and the nation's willingness to bear the burden of a long struggle. That is a dangerous predicate to an important conversation.

A debate about whether the fight against terrorism requires a fight abroad.

Here there actually is a comparison with Vietnam. In the mid-1960s, responsible American strategists believed that the United States should fight Communism in Saigon and Hue so we would not have to fight Communists in Seattle and Houston. Now some Americans are arguing that we should fight terrorism in Afghanistan so we do not have to fight it on the streets of Atlanta. We concluded that this argument was overdrawn in Vietnam. We have reached no conclusion about Afghanistan. We must.

A debate about the political consequences of withdrawing and the political consequences of escalation.

It is sordid to invoke questions of narrow political advantage in a decision involving the blood of Americans. Lyndon Johnson's protestations that he fought in Vietnam because he felt he would be impeached if he did not seem jarring to our ears, but I believe it was a crucial factor in Johnson's calculations.

The number of Kennedy acolytes who swear that John F. Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam after winning re-election in 1964 is testimony to the importance of politics in the decisions of war. This group includes the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who made that argument in his memoir, arguing, "He had spoken with (Defense Secretary Robert F.) McNamara about a plan for withdrawal within two or three years. Jack's antenna was set up to find a way out. And I am convinced that he was on his way to finding that way out. He just never got the chance."

We don't know whether the prism of the 2010 midterm congressional elections or the 2012 presidential election is affecting how the Obama administration views its options in 2009, and it would be unfair to speculate. But this much is true: The Democrats' prospects for retaining congressional power in 2010 and Obama's chances of retaining the White House in 2012 will be affected by his Afghanistan decision in 2009.

The president does not seem to be in a hurry to make his decision. To some that makes him look like Hamlet, and perhaps that is a fair critique. But most of the rest of us aren't prepared to make this decision either.

May I add an old Latin admonition suitable to this dangerous predicament? Festina lente. Make haste slowly.


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

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