Where are the Good Options in Afghanistan?

There’s some great analysis of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy cropping up in the blogosphere. Speaking before officers at West Point, Obama outlined a compromise position on Afghanistan: a dramatic increase of the U.S. military presence in the country, combined with ah planned drawdown after 18 months. Like many compromises, Obama’s position is likely to please no one. Critics on the right assert that we must do whatever is necessary to win in Afghanistan, regardless of the cost. They argue that the commitment to begin the force drawdown in 18 months undermines that commitment. Critics on the left argue that the U.S. should not increase its troop presence in Afghanistan in the first place.

But some of the best analysis in coming from bloggers. Daniel Drezner takes Obama to task for implicitly relying on the same surge strategy that was used in Iraq. According to Drezner,

My hunch is that the surge is perceived to have worked pretty well–Iraq in 2009 is in better straits than Iraq in 2006.  If policymakers are unconsciously adopting this parallel, then the strategy will sell.

The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq.  As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it’s a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative “stability” than Afghanistan.  Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq.

Drezner concludes that Obama may have few good options when it comes to Afghanistan, a point on which Stephen Walt agrees. While Walt applauds Obama’s use of cost-beneift anlaysis based on national security interests in the speech, he, like Drezner, concludes that Obama had few good options. But for Walt, the logic of the decision brakes down. According to Walt,

With no good options before him, he went for the middle ground: We will escalate by sending 30,000 more troops but in eighteen months he’ll start bringing them home. The logic here is hard to discern: if the stakes are as important as he maintained, then setting a firm time limit makes little sense. Obama correctly refused to grant the corrupt Afghan government a “blank check,” but no serious analyst thinks we can train an Afghan army or create a strong Afghan state in a year and a half.  And if he is willing to cut Karzai & Co. off later, then success isn’t really a “vital national interest” after all. If that’s the case, why invest another $30 billion now?

One of the few bloggers supporting Obama’s middle path is Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, who criticized Presidents Kennedy and Johnson for pursuing a middle path in Vietnam, observing that, “Kennedy and Johnson steered a middle way because they felt they couldn’t win and couldn’t get out. Thus, they went step by step, deeper and deeper, doing just enough not to lose, pursuing a horribly costly war without any real prospect of a good outcome, simply hoping for something to turn up.” Gelb suggests that Obama’s centrist policies in Afghanistan make the best of a bad situation—and may indeed be the best path to success there.

So what do you think? Is Obama’s surge likely to produce results? Or will we reflect back on this decision in 18 months and think, “OK…that didn’t work…what now?”

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