The flipside of my endless series of posts urging people not to blame Barack Obama for his inability to magically overcome the realities of congressional politics is that progressives should probably be giving more scrutiny to his foreign policy initiatives. The way the American government works, domestic policy is basically made by congress, albeit with a strong White House voice, but national security policy is made almost exclusively by the President. And on most topics, especially the big picture stuff, I think Obama deserves high marks and the hope for a new, more progressive foreign policy, was always what drew me to Obama back in the primaries.
And then there’s Afghanistan where the administration seems to be drifting, with almost no media or congressional scrutiny, toward a total redefinition of American war aims and the scale of our commitment without articulating any serious strategic rationale for doing so beyond some extremely woolly thinking about “save havens.”
I have a number of points to make about this, but the main thing I would say is that I think we’ve conclusively resolved a debate from a little while back as to whether increased emphasis on counterinsurgency capacity was inevitably going to ensnare the United States in a lot of pointless neo-colonial enterprises. This was a worry of mine, but leading counterinsurgency thinkers assured me that the counterinsurgents themselves knew better than anyone that counterinsurgency is hard and that we should, if at all possible, avoid putting ourselves in situations where we need to do it. What we’re seeing instead in Afghanistan, however, is that having (allegedly) developed a workable counterinsurgency hammer everything now looks like a nail. Suddenly, counterterrorism goals require counterinsurgency methods because, allegedly, the only way for a country to make itself safe from terrorism is ensure that there are no unstable governments anywhere in the world—or at least anywhere in the world that it’s plausible to imagine the congress funding a massive counterinsurgency campaign. Not a single person from the counterinsurgency community seems to have said “you know what, counterinsurgency is really hard and we shouldn’t embroil ourselves in it on a thin pretext.”
But if counterinsurgency is as hard as all the counterinsurgents claim to recognize it is, then I really desperately want someone to show me the math on why this makes sense as an approach to Afghanistan. I’m happy to accept that a more ambitious set of war aims for Afghanistan will, at the margin, increase American security relative to more limited goals. But the increase seems wildly out of proportion to the additional costs we’re talking about incurring.