A Missed Opportunity

A Missed Opportunity

By Andy Zelleke and Robert Dujarric - December 4, 2009

At West Point, President Obama told Americans that we must send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. In promising to draw down force levels in 2011, he projected confidence that the military and civilian surges, better training of Afghan soldiers and policemen and pressure for political reform would allow for a rapid and substantial Afghanization of the war.

But what if his confidence proves misplaced?

For months, opinion pages have been full of polemics for and against escalation. Many have been rooted in purportedly unique insights into this conflict.

But the sad truth is that nobody knows what Afghanistan will look like in eighteen months any more than they know where the Dow Jones will close.

To argue that the future is unknowable is not to say that predictions are a fool's errand. Consideration of plausible scenarios is vital for strategic planning. To its credit, the Obama national security team appears to have carefully weighed available evidence. But even the sharpest minds have limitations. Clausewitz's admonition that war is continuously bound with chance surely applies to Afghanistan.

Regrettably, what Mr. Obama did not do is to explicitly address a less optimistic but eminently plausible scenario: one in which Afghanization of the war effort fails-within 18, or 24, or even 36 months.

After all, the transformation of another country's army and police is not a merely technical matter but rather a complex political project whose success can't be taken for granted. Consider the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam upon the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 despite years of "Vietnamization" policy, and the still uncertain outcome of the Iraqi analog despite a multi-year training mission.

What, then, will Mr. Obama do if in 2011 it's clear that even a partial US withdrawal would jeopardize the entire American project in Afghanistan? He didn't say.

But is there any reason to doubt that, in that scenario, Mr. Obama would find the prospect of "losing" a war to be just as unpalatable as it has seemed to others before him? Without having prepared the electorate for this possibility, the president would most likely find himself-despite his stated aversion to "blank checks"-trapped in Afghanistan.

Such a trap would be partly of his own making. Having previously labeled Afghanistan a "war of necessity," adding at West Point that "our security is at stake" there, it is difficult to see how he could abandon the American enterprise in that country if its security forces proved not to be up to the challenges they face.

So what should Mr. Obama have done? Instead of telling American voters that the US can start to leave in 18 months because the success he's expecting will make that possible, the president should have acknowledged that victory will ultimately depend on others whom we can influence but not control. And in light of that reality, it would be irresponsible not to prepare as well for the possibility of mission failure.

Mr. Obama should have made it clear that the surge is a contingent decision that will be reversed if it becomes clear that the benefits he anticipated aren't materializing. Being explicit about this would put the Afghan leaders (and NATO allies) on notice: if you don't help us succeed, we will get out. He should have stated unequivocally that, painful as it would be, he is willing to lose a war-by withdrawing-if, despite our best efforts, our optimistic assumptions about the Afghan government and security forces prove unfounded.

General Eisenhower's 1944 exhortation that "We will accept nothing less than full victory" resonated with Americans. But life-and-death struggles like World War II and the Cold War have been exceptions rather than the rule. President Eisenhower accepted stalemate in Korea because he understood that-major war that it was-it was still just one front in a broader struggle and had to be kept in perspective.

There is much that is already tragic in Afghanistan. That tragedy would be compounded if a president perceptive enough to see the broader context nonetheless repeated George W. Bush's mistakes and allowed himself to become trapped for years in one small corner of a much bigger, dynamic world. In Afghanistan, like Korea and unlike World War II, success is worth a large but not an unlimited investment of blood and treasure.

Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Temple University Japan Campus.



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Andy Zelleke and Robert Dujarric

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