In Afghanistan, What’s News?

In a recent interview with the New York Times, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, argued “against any precipitous withdrawal of forces by July 2011,” and added he did not take over merely to “preside over a ‘graceful exit.’”

That an active-duty army general is committed to a pending military engagement is nothing new. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts about this interview, and the rest of the general’s weekend “media blitz,” that I think are worth sharing.

First off, that Petraeus is against a “precipitous withdrawal” reminds me of the many straw man arguments bandied about during the most explosive days in Iraq. However, back then, even the staunchest (and more serious) anti-Iraq War critics did not endorse high-tailing it out of Mesopotamia, logistics be damned. Not only was a phased exit strategy deemed strategically necessary, but also the only option that was considered politically feasible. Today, in the case of Afghanistan, to suppress al Qaeda in a cost-effective manner, America and its allies could easily scale-down its campaign to a much narrower counterterrorism mission. Of course, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but Petraeus’s gratuitous “precipitous withdrawal” comment implies that critics of the present policy (a massive, long-term nation-building campaign) have no coherent or well-thought out alternative. That is certainly not the case.

Second, as my colleagues and I ask continuously, the issue is not exclusively about where we intend to fight, but rather how we intend to fight. More importantly, the question we need to ask in the case of Afghanistan is not “is Afghanistan winnable?” but rather “what do we hope to accomplish?” To endorse an open-ended nation-building mission blithely ignores the uncomfortable truth that “American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan” who are fueling the very corruption and warlordism that we are pressing President Karzai to curtail. It neglects the perverse reality that the United States is “essentially waging a proxy war” against its ostensible ally, Pakistan. Perhaps even worse, it dismisses the fact that we are incinerating hundreds of billions of dollars—during a time of economic peril, no less—on a corrupt and illegitimate central government in Kabul that has every incentive to perpetuate the conflict.

The July 2011 drawdown should continue as the Obama Administration pledged. Government planners in Washington should begin to husband our nation’s ever-diminishing financial resources rather squander them, and learn how to manage our own affairs, not others’.