Afghanistan: The Debate we should be having

Back in 2009, when President Obama announced his political compromise plan for a "surge" in Afghanistan there were complaints from both "hawks" and "doves" alike. And so it came as no surprise that he would hear the same complaints this week as he announced the "beginning of the end" of the "surge".

Hawks complained that the President’s targets of the imminent departure of 10,000 troops, followed by another 23,000, in a year’s time, are too many too soon.    Senator John McCain (Republican- AZ), for example, expressed the concern "that the withdrawal plan…poses an unnecessary risk to the hard won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made". This view was echoed by Republican House Speaker John Boehner who announced that he would hold the President accountable for any setbacks resulting from the "pace and scope of the drawdown".

Democrats, on the other hand, like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Congressman Barney Frank (MA) were "disappointed". Said Pelosi, "it has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out".

It was this very tension, between these two poles, that had led to the awkward "surge" compromise in the first place. During the 2008 campaign Obama had termed Afghanistan the necessary war, criticizing George Bush for starving it of resources and troops, while diverting his attention to the wrong war in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Bush had made due with overthrowing the Taliban, holding an election, and declaring victory. While the U.S. sent 150,000 troops into Iraq, Afghanistan was largely ignored (except for the less than 30,000 troops left behind). The Taliban regrouped, warlords and narco-trade came back, and the mostly ineffectual government in Kabul became known as one of the most corrupt on the planet. Al Qaeda was ignored, as was the festering India-Pakistan rivalry.

Upon assuming the Presidency, Obama made good on his commitment to upgrade the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan – part of which was the "surge" of 33,000 additional troops. This increase brought the total troop presence to just over 100,000. Facing stiff opposition from war-weary Democrats, the President attempted a compromise, announcing that troops would be withdrawn by July of 2011. When Republicans howled, the Administration fudged on the meaning of the 2011 date, indicating that it would mark the end of the "surge", while suggesting a 2014 date for the end of the U.S. combat mission. Still no one was happy.

So in a real sense, there were no real surprises in the President’s announcement, or in the reactions. What is troubling, however, is that the debate focused on numbers and dates and not on the war itself and what really needs to be done to end it. In this, I have problems with both sides.

Republicans still appear to believe that this is a war that can be won militarily, and that all that is lacking is Presidential resolve. They were, of course, largely silent during the first seven years of the conflict when the Bush Administration starved Afghanistan of resources and attention. Now, like McCain, they want more troops in order to fight "decisive" battles, despite the fact that the evidence points to a different reality. One thousand U.S. troops have died since the surge began, limited gains have been won on the ground (with the Taliban resurgent in parts of the country), and the government in Kabul is still best known for its corruption. And then there’s the mess 10 years of this war have made across the border in Pakistan.

As we intensified drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, pushed that country’s military into bloody combat against Taliban elements who sought refuge in Pakistan, and ignored the India-Pakistan strategic competition in Afghanistan, we created unbearable pressures which have threatened Pakistan’s stability.

None of this is recognized by the hawks, who want more, not less war. Nor are these sad realities dealt with by those who simply want an abrupt end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

President Obama is right in understanding that there can be no walking away from the mess George Bush left. It is not just a question of leaving a "failed state" where terrorism will flourish (as Senator McCain noted last week). And it’s more than the matter of once again abandoning the Afghani people to a cruel and uncertain fate. It is also the regional instability that will follow a hasty departure – with India, Pakistan and Iran all in the mix.

The bottom line here is the need to recognize that the two poles of the current debate fall short. The war can’t be won militarily and we just can’t walk away. In this, again, the President is right. We must leave, and do so responsibly. But this can not be done on our own or by relying on the current government in Kabul.

Given its neighborhood and the weakness of its institutions (after more than 30 years of occupation and war), and given the roles, positive or negative, that Afghanistan’s neighbors can (and have played) and the fact that each has a direct interest in the stability of the country, Afghanistan can’t and doesn’t stand a chance of finding that stability on its own. What we should, therefore, be working toward is a political solution that invests all of Afghanistan’s neighbors in the creation of a regional security framework. The U.S. might be loathe to convene such a standing security arrangement and to hand it off to the U.N., but this option is to be weighed against the burden of continuing this war without end or the bitter consequences that would follow withdrawal.

This may not be the only answer to the dilemma we face, but it points in the direction of where our national conversation ought to be – not whether more troops or no troops, or about the date certain we will leave Afghanistan – but what we must do between now and when we do leave to insure that it is, in fact, a responsible departure.