Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.