Conservative columnist and Heritage Foundation affiliate Tony Blankley has a column up on RCP today that troubles me. The column relies on the old rhetorical trope that liberals (in this case, the Obama Administration itself) are aiding our enemies in Afghanistan with their rhetoric on the war. Though Blankley suggests that this “may be the first [war] we lose” this way, this is a sleight of hand, as he doubtless knows similar charges have been thrown at the feet of any politician questioning any aspect of any war the US has been involved in since time immemorial. (To cite one example, although what most people remember about LBJ’s Vietnam policy is escalation, he was routinely criticized from the right for an unwillingness to commit to indefinite or all-out warfare.)
Let’s ignore the flawed premise underlying the article, though, and address the substance. Is Obama waffling on Afghanistan, and if so, will waffling be the reason we ‘lose’ the war?
On the first point, I would argue that Blankley is on to something. Maybe not as much as he believes he is, but something. It is certainly true that announcing a surge and a fairly brisk timeline for withdrawal in such close proximity sent a mixed message. What’s more, it’s a mixed message that never could have made anyone happy, since the timeline is mostly unpalatable to the people who support the surge and vice versa. The Administration’s true priority, I suspect, may be drawing down forces, and officials would probably argue that explicitly laying out the details of any drawing down of forces so far in advance of the intended date would have the effect Blankley ascribes to existing policy, frustrating our allies and encouraging the insurgency to bide its time. Whether this alternative is any better is unclear, though.
On the subject of how much any of this really matters, I find Blankley’s position much more untenable. The current situation in Iraq, even if it can be sustained, is far from an ideal outcome, and we appear to be pursuing something similar or perhaps slightly worse in Afghanistan as our absolute best-case scenario. Though Blankley criticizes the Obama Administration’s portrayal of Karzai as corrupt, it’s an indisputable fact that this characterization is something with which a large segment of the Afghan people themselves agree. What’s more, they consider governmental corruption, which is something the US has very little control over, a significantly more important problem than the Taliban, whom we ostensibly remain in the country to fight. And unlike Iraq, where much of the political opposition to the current government seems willing to attempt to continue to operate within a democratic system for the time being, it is not at all clear that this is the case in Afghanistan.
The President is in a lose-lose situation regarding Afghanistan. The hawkish elements of the right will never approve of his policies there. The portion of the left who makes up his base would like to see us gone, leaving behind only residual forces to train an Afghan force and help maintain order in the cities. Unfortunately, as with many other policies, in walking the tightrope, Obama seems to be pleasing no one.