This week I am putting up my thoughts on accepting a ‘defeat’ in the Greater Middle East (at least for a little while); cutting our losses; and a long-term exit from a region that is consuming US power at a remarkably frightening rate. My ‘rah-rah’ instincts are to stay and ‘win’ and my blogging to date has supported the GWoT pretty strongly, but increasingly the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam linger in my head. It’s hard not to see this debate like those of the Johnson administration in 1964-65. The risks of staying and draining US power, especially in the face of rising Asia, increasingly worry me. Perhaps living in Asia and seeing how wealthy they are all getting, while we run all over the ME, has instilled greater fear in me of US overstretch. The GWoT needs to end soon, or at least we need to find a far less expensive way to fight it.
The intellectual drivers of this rethink are all the good punditry that has emerged in the last 2 months of the Obama review. (This time has been an excellent public participatory debate on the republic’s foreign policy. Let’s hope this style recurs. It is downright revelatory and democratic compared to W.) Particularly influential on me have been Walt, Kaplan, and Greenwald. Walt’s constant and intelligent blogging at FP has really forced me to rethink how unlikely, unnecessary, and costly a counterinsurgency ‘victory’ would be, and the importance of husbanding US power for other concerns (Asia). Kaplan convinced me that we are helping others a lot more than ourselves. And Greenwald convinced me that my own thinking on US geopolitical problems too easily slides to the standard US ‘foreign policy community’ response of more force, more intervention, more effort. If all you read all day is stuff from think-tanks and policy institutes like Brookings, Rand, or the Council of Foreign Relations, you’d think the US should be the world’s first problem solver. But Walt is probably right that that is recipe for overstretch, and Greenwald is probably right that that puts a lot of blood on US hands.
So I am going wobbly on Afghanistan first:
Like Friedman and Kupchan, I am starting to think this is a bridge too far – at least right now. I am not so sure, but the costs of this thing seem pretty high, and likelihood of failure too, and it is not clear how much the US needs a victory in Afghanistan defined by a decade of nation-building (the McChrystal approach). Why my change of heart?
1. US finances are a mess, even worse than usual, and US unemployment just broke 10%. This constraint is worsening as the budget outlook worsens. It should condition ALL new foreign policy outlays, especially those involving the military, as wars usually out-cost expectations. A major counterinsurgency ramp-up may be the ‘imperial’ indulgence that pushes the US into a financial crisis. Think about the parallel of Johnson’s expensive Vietnam build-up and the costs it brought in the 70s.
2. The US partner in Afghanistan is really bad. Karzai is so obviously corrupt now. The stolen election may be the last straw. US troops are now in the bizarre position of tacitly protecting warlords, as well as the drug growers who supply opium in the US. How can we win if the government is a lost cause? Isn’t that oxymoronic?
3. The US Army is badly overstretched by any reasonable measure. Recruitment is problematic. Gear has worn down faster in hard conditions of Afghanistan (and Iraq) than expected. The Army and Marines need some pretty serious institutional downtime to rebuild capacities and absorb GWoT lessons.
4. International cooperation on Afghanistan is pathetic; this is a coalition of the unwilling. The Europeans are wholly disinterested. They just want to come home. Obama can’t get anything more from them than W got. America’s Asian allies (Japan, SK, Australia) are not enthusiastic at all. Korea will go, but they will be non-combat forces. Japan won’t go, and is even probably going to stop its Indian Ocean refueling operation. Australia won’t go either. Not even the UN can really function in Afghanistan now either after last week’s bombing. And Pakistan’s role is downright pernicious.
If this sounds like I am flip-flopping, that is somewhat correct. Try here for my argument 2 months ago in favor of the Afghan COIN. I am genuinely unsure of the right course – as is Obama apparently, so at least I am in good company.