Is Obama ‘all in’ on Afghanistan?

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Back in January when he took office, Barack Obama had amassed a very considerable pile of chips. Events since then have appreciably reduced that stack. Should he wager what remains on Afghanistan? That’s the issue the president now faces.

The first true foreign policy test of the Obama presidency has arrived, although not in the form of a crisis coming out of nowhere announced by a jangling telephone at 3 a.m. Instead, a steady drip-drip of accumulating evidence warns that Afghanistan is coming apart.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has by no means consigned Afghanistan to the back burner. Since becoming president, he has declared the war there both necessary and winnable. He has ordered an increase to the U.S. troop commitment. He has installed a new commander. In effect, Afghanistan has displaced Iraq on the Pentagon’s list of priorities. Yet all of this has amounted to little more than temporizing.

The really big decisions have yet to be made. The biggest of all is simply this: Is the president willing to go for broke? Is he committed to Afghanistan as Obama’s war -- committed as George W. Bush was to his war in Iraq? Is he willing to pull out the stops, regardless of the obstacles ahead, despite evidence of eroding public support and disregarding the fact that many in his own party oppose the war outright?


Obama’s advisors -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen and Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander on the ground in Afghanistan -- have been quite candid in arguing that half-measures won’t suffice. The war is going badly. The Taliban is gaining in strength. Seven-plus years of allied efforts in Afghanistan have accomplished very little.

Even if the military’s recently rediscovered catechism of counterinsurgency provides the basis for a new strategy, turning things around will take a very long time -- five to 10 years at least. Achieving success (however vaguely defined) will entail the expenditure of vast resources: treasure (no one will say how much) and, of course, blood (again, no one offers an estimate).

So the president faces a real challenge if he intends to make the case for starting from scratch in Afghanistan. To persuade the American people to buy in, he will have to reassure them on five points:

* Afghanistan constitutes a vital national security interest -- victory in this primitive, impoverished, landlocked and distant country will contribute materially to driving a stake through the heart of violent jihadism.

* Armed nation-building -- securing the Afghan population, developing the economy, building legitimate institutions, eliminating corruption and drug trafficking -- provides the most realistic and effective way to satisfy those interests.

* The failure of past efforts by other great powers to impose their will on Afghanistan is beside the point -- history has no relevant lessons to teach.

* The United States possesses the money, troops, expertise and will to get the job done -- notwithstanding the recession, the mushrooming deficit, the diminishing enthusiasm of our allies, the stress and strain already endured by U.S. forces and the uneven performance of government agencies in the analogous U.S. effort to “fix” Iraq.

* No other priorities, foreign or domestic, exist that outrank Afghanistan and should have first call on the resources that years of additional war will consume -- several hundred billion dollars and several hundred additional American lives by a conservative estimate.


Driving home these five propositions will require Obama to deploy all of his formidable powers of persuasion. Even if he manages to do so, he will then spend the rest of his presidency -- as the bills mount and the body count climbs -- defending and reaffirming them. As was the case with Harry Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, war will hold his presidency hostage.

Obama does not act impulsively. Before betting his remaining chips on Afghanistan, he will no doubt deliberate carefully. He will consult. He will sift through all the evidence. Yet before hitting the “start over” button on Afghanistan, he would do well to consider the following: Sometimes the essence of leadership is not to render the right decision but to pose the right question.

As difficult as it is to do so at a time when war has become a seemingly perpetual condition, when it comes to Afghanistan, the really urgent need is to recast the debate. Official Washington obsesses over the question: How do we win? Yet perhaps a different question merits presidential consideration: What alternatives other than open-ended war might enable the United States to achieve its limited interests in Afghanistan?

At this pivotal moment in his presidency, if Obama is going to demonstrate his ability to lead, he will direct his subordinates to identify those alternatives.