Foreign Policy Blogs

American Support for the Afghan War: Falling From Many Angles

These are heady days for both Afghan and American citizens.  Ballots continue to be counted and contested in Afghanistan’s 2nd presidential election, with Karzai in the lead, but not quite with the 50% he needs, and with Americans hearing in Gen. McChrystal’s recent assessment, a likely future request for more US troops and resources.  How both of these situations flesh out will do much in deciding the next few years and decades of the people of Afghanistan and the American presence in the region.

Focusing on the American military and strategic presence, there has definitely been much negative, or shall we say ‘pessimistic’,  attention given to the current situation.  A relatively diverse group has started to push harder for a pull back of American troops and resources in the Central Asian state and all trends point to a future where these only get louder.  Though I very much look forward to discussing these groups and this anti-Afghan War trend as a congruent movement, or trend, today I would like to focus on just two people’s view: Scholar Anthony H. Cordesman and Senator Russ Feingold.

These two men do not advocate the same strategy for America in Afghanistan, but both share the view that the war could be lost in the very  near future.  Their views are valuable examples personifying the struggles in which the Obama administration faces in this fight for Afghanistan and against Al Qaeda.  In fact, Senator Feingold believes the ‘fighting for Afghanistan’ part is in itself misguided.  In this piece he just wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Feingold pushes for a more focused, minimized strategy for the region that targets Al Qaeda, advocates stepping away from nation-building in Afghanistan, and warns against pushing Pakistan further to the brink of chaos.  Feingold argues that our Afghan troop presence is more of a detriment than an aid to overall US national security(though he doesn’t say exactly how), and pushes for a ‘flexible timetable’ for ending our military presence in Afghanistan.  Feingold makes clear that the US should not abandon the Afghan people or state, but that we should largely scale down our presence and introduce more modest goals.  Of course, there are many counter arguments to this policy prescription, with the most obvious to me being how will this guarantee that the Taliban or other Al Qaeda sympathetic group doesn’t gain power of a portion of the Afghan/Pakistan state (and see Joshua Foust’s series of ‘The Case for Afghanistan‘ for much more), but the point here is that I believe this strategy is finding more willing listeners than it did 8 years, 2 years, even 4 months back.

Respected scholar Anthony Cordesman, who recently did some excellent analysis of the US-Iraqi conflict, does not push for a withdrawal, but his view of conflict is nearly as dire as Feingold’s.  Cordesman, who was part of Gen. McChrystal’s assessment group, states that the US could ‘easily lose the war’ in the next three months without serious policy changes and concrete progress on the ground.  He acknowledges the growing unpopularity of the war in America and recent Taliban successes as two ways victory is falling from America’s grip.  Cordesman is critical of micromanagement from DC and advocates letting Gen. McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry have more control over both civil and military spheres.  In between the lines, Cordesman is basically calling for the Obama administration to give these men more resources and troops and less direction and orders.

This policy conclusion, though near the opposite of Feingold’s, comes from a similar assessment of the situation on the ground, and it is both of these strangely familiar views, that should cause President Obama great pause.  Though Feingold and Cordesman have different policy prescriptions for the present and future US presence in Central Asia, they both seem to agree that the war could be ‘lost’, if not already, then very soon.  As support for the war falls in the polls, groups start to mobilize against the war effort, scholars voice their dire assessments, and Congress members publicly push for withdrawal, the Obama administration finds itself more and more on the defensive.  As I have argued before, Obama will need to start using his political capital and bully pulpit to keep the country close to his own view, that is that this a ‘war of necessity’.  With a call for more troops likely only just days or weeks away, Obama will have to do this sooner than I, and likely he, ever thought.