Return of the Dreaded Table

I want to thank Ross Douthat, first of all, for responding to my critique of his latest column, and I think I understand better what he’s getting at. Now let me see if I can clarify what I am getting at.

The choices Ross presented in his column, and that are usually presented, are between trying to win and just muddling through. The third, usually excluded choice, is: planning for the exit. Ross explicitly excluded that choice by simply saying that the Obama Administration is not considering it and that “the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.” But neither of these are arguments for staying – they are arguments for not considering whether we should stay because we simply will. He chose to frame the question that way, and that framing shaped my response.

To grapple with the heart of Ross’s argument, then. Apart from the overarching point that our resources, our responsibilities, and our interests are all limited, the key point that Rory Stewart makes in his article that Ross cites as “admirably honest” is that “[t]here are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” If this is true, then if our goal is overwhelmingly to keep al Qaeda from again regaining its prior position in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Pakistan, then we should not assume that defeating the Taliban and/or keeping them out of power should be a primary war aim. Right now, nearly all the discussion about Afghanistan is predicated on the assumption that the American goal is to keep the Taliban out of power. If, instead, the assumption were that the Taliban, in some form, was inevitably going to return to power – not necessarily to exclusive power, of course – then we’d be having a very different conversation.

The key questions are: what does Pakistan (or the Pakistani army) really want; is it well-aligned with what we want; can they deliver; and can we live with giving them whatever it is they want that doesn’t dovetail with what we want.

My sense is that Pakistan wants a docile Afghanistan dominated by the Pashtun majority that is beholden to Islamabad and, in particular, doesn’t have any meaningful relations with India. Al Qaeda is more a threat to their regime than to us, so I should think if our preeminent war aim is to separate al Qaeda from the Taliban, that our aims are well-aligned in that regard. Whether we can live with Afghanistan being turned into a Pakistani puppet is another question – but it’s a question worth asking.

Whether Pakistan can deliver is another story entirely, but it strikes me as very peculiar indeed to believe simultaneously that the Pakistani army can’t be relied on but that after a decisive effort we could hand the reins over to the Afghan army.

Ross ended his column by saying: “this is what General Petraeus will be fighting for, across the next year and more — not to keep us in forever, but to seize what may be our last chance at getting out.” If by that he meant “make it possible for an orderly entry of the Taliban into government in Kabul with some confidence that al Qaeda won’t be invited in as well” then perhaps we agree more than we disagree on the most important matters. But if by that he meant “enable the Karzai regime to stand on its own” then, well, I just don’t see why he’s more confident in that approach than the “counter-terrorism plus” scenario that he treats as the only alternative.

Finally, I’ll note that we’re now engaged in our 20th year of “commitment” in Iraq. Operation Desert Shield was launched in 1990, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but our commitment didn’t end then. From the cease-fire through to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, we had a significant commitment of troops to the region and enforced a no-fly zone in both the north and the south. America committed itself to a policy of regime change in Iraq in 1998, and launched a new, full-scale war on the country in 2003. One of the justifications of that war was that we needed to finally bring Iraq to a “decisive outcome.” And here we still are. The “muddling through” option in Iraq did indeed trap us – we didn’t “win” and we couldn’t leave and our continued presence was a major contributor to the rise of al Qaeda and to instability in Saudi Arabia. And so we went for a decisive outcome. How’d that work out?