John Kerry is Making Sense

Spencer Ackerman reports from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

Kerry sets out a few principles for such refinement. “First it will be the Afghans that will ultimately win or lose the struggle against the Taliban.” The United States is in a “race against time” in a region “suspicious of foreign troops.” Recognize “the decentralized nature” of Afghan politics and society. Be flexible. “What works in Mazar-e-Sharif … is very different from what works in Kandahar.” Be “humble about our ability to bring large-scale change.” Put Afghanistan in a regional context. “Permeable borders are straddled by clans, ethnic groups and militants and what happens in one country can have profound implications for what happens in others.”

Finally: “Set realistic goals. The purpose of the mission is what the president said it was” — a struggle against al-Qaeda. Kerry, who has said the United States is involved in a “global counterinsurgency,” references the commando strike earlier this week against a Somali militant with ties to al-Qaeda. The success, he said, should cause policymakers to ask “how much counterinsurgency and nation-building is required to meet a sufficient set of goals?”

I think it’s crucial that talk of it being Afghans who matter most be not just lip service in this mission. I’m enough of a not-realist that insofar as there are meaningful Afghan allies on the ground who have an achievable vision for bringing better governance to their country and protecting people from Taliban rule, I’d be inclined to help them out completely irrespective of the counterterrorism merits of providing such assistance. But there’s a world of difference between helping out an ally who’s got good ideas and just needs some help (money, airstrikes, manpower, expert advice) to execute them, and trying to conjure such an ally up out of thin air. In other words, if Hamid Karzai had a great new counterinsurgency strategy that he wanted American money and troops to assist with that would be one thing. For Stanley McChrystal to have the strategy and want to use American money and troops to try to twist Karzai into seeing things his way is another matter.


This is important because I think definitive pronouncements about a “war of necessity” that must be “won” imply a kind of unlimited and unconditional commitment to Afghanistan that winds up creating bad incentives. We have real, but limited, interests in Afghanistan and we should be trying to make sure that key Afghan actors understand that.