Remember last week when we discussed John McCain’s really bad ideas on Afghanistan? Well, it turns out he has more pull than we do and Obama has decided to postpone any further withdrawal of US till after he’s out of office. Here’s a brief write-up on the announcement.
You’ll note that he’s not adding more troops; he’s just keeping the ones that we have there already. This means we’ll continue to see a gradual escalation of the civil war and a continued deterioration of the Afghan government’s control. Indeed, Obama is making the same argument, essentially, that we gave John McCain credit for avoiding. That is, McCain argued the US needs to keep troops there indefinitely, which is a bad idea, but it’s at least honest. Obama, on the other hand, is essentially saying we just need more time to shore up the Afghan security forces. I won’t repeat the same arguments from the prior post here, but there’s no reason to think this will work.
In the Al-Jazeera article referenced above, they actually cite a Taliban spokesperson saying this makes no difference. They will continue to fight until the last foreign troop leaves. And they’re not lying about that. The Taliban is and has always been betting that they can outlast the US, and frankly, they’re right. To them, Afghanistan is home; to us, it’s just one more war-torn country we helped destroy and would really prefer to forget about.
So now that we’re clear that this new plan has virtually no prospect of success, it’s important to understand why they’re doing it. And as is so often the case, the answer is domestic politics. While this plan won’t achieve long-term stability, it’s likely to delay the full collapse of the Afghan state till after the upcoming election. And sure, the fact that Obama didn’t keep his campaign promise to end the war isn’t ideal for Democrats, but since Republicans wouldn’t have ended it either, that criticism is manageable. It would be far more damaging politically if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban before the election, because Republicans would pounce on it as more evidence of the Democrats’ ineptitude on foreign policy. So if you’re a Democrat, this is a smart political calculation. They can claim they listened to the generals, and they can defer addressing real problems for one more cycle. But we should be clear that this is a decision motivated exclusively by politics, and not a real strategy for ending the war or helping the Afghan people.
It should also be noted that, strictly speaking, this isn’t the only option available to Democrats. They could try to justify leaving Afghanistan using a principled, history-based argument in favor of nonintervention. They could acknowledge that civilians killed by the US create terrorists just like civilians killed by Russians. But after 7 more years of war from a president who already won the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps no one would believe them.