Sen. Obama on Afghanistan (Updated)

I just finished listening to Lara Logan interview Sen. Barack Obama from Afghanistan on CBS’s Face the Nation and, as he has before, he advocated increased American troop levels in Afghanistan in order to secure victory there. For all of the complaints about the fuzzy, shifting definition of victory in Iraq I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about what victory in Afghanistan would look like, how it can be achieved, and how much it’s likely to cost. Just to repeat my position I don’t think that anything we’d generally recognize as victory is possible in either Afghanistan or Iraq in a timeframe and at a cost that would be acceptable to the American people. That’s what I thought in 2003, I continue to believe it, and I’ve seen little evidence that would change my calculation.

What is possible, however, is to minimize downside risk in both places but I don’t believe that the strategy for doing that would be the same in both places. What we’re doing right now in Iraq certainly seems to me to be accomplishing that. Perhaps it’s possible to reduce downside risk in Afghanistan but I don’t have any idea of how that would be accomplished. The best outcome I can see there is denying the territory to Al Qaeda and the Taliban which we can do as long as we’re willing to remain in the country. Is a greater objective achievable? How? At what cost?


There more on the interview with Sen. Obama here.

5 comments… add one
  • I respect your opinion, but I don’t believe denial of territory is all we can accomplish in Afghanistan.

    We could put more effort into developing Afghanistan. A wealthier, more stable Afghanistan would be more resistant to Taliban/Qaeda infiltration. And it would perhaps begin to show a way forward to Pakistani tribesmen over the border.

    The tribes certainly do have a long history of making trouble for potential governments on both sides of the border. But culture can be changed. A people that makes its living herding, smuggling and opium farming may see the world differently when it is making a living trucking, building or growing legal cash crops. We have the resources to alter the economics, and to some extent, the resulting culture there.

    Of course we need security first. And we have those resources as well. If we choose to allocate them.

  • I’m not alone in my views, Michael. Both Juan Cole:

    If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don’t think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq.

    and Pat Lang:

    The US is in a bind. It has to deny the Pakhtun insurgency (the Taliban are only one part of it) the use of the tribal areas as a base. With Pakistan showing no will to control these areas, it is threatening to take unilateral military action there. This will obviously be through air strikes and Special Forces raids, both notorious for their inevitable “collateral damage”. This will add fuel to the fire of militancy, pushing more recruits into the ranks of the jihad, especially the deadly suicide bombers. An insurgency cannot be defeated by a few successful decapitation strikes, or even by turning a rugged mountainous base area into a free-fire zone. The more perceptive US commanders probably know this, but they have to be seen to do something about the continuous guerrilla attacks. How long will the NATO allies stick around fighting an unwinnable war? How long will the US public put up with it?

    But that is not the worst of it. Believing Pakistan to be complicit in the US strikes on their people, the tribal militants will turn on it; they have already seen the deadly effect of their suicide bombs in the teeming cities. An already fragile governmental and societal structure will face severe stress; anything could happen. One thing is certain : the religious fundamentalists in the country will take full advantage of this turmoil. For the US, the first impact will be on their supply line through Pakistan. Then, Pakistan itself, as an ally, will be at risk.

    One of the most difficult things for both statesman and soldier is to recognize a war as unwinnable before it is proven in the field.

    from very different parts of the political spectrum essentially share my view of the intractability of Afghanistan.

  • Andy Link


    For the record, the post at Pat Lang’s site you quote was actually written by one of his commenters, FB Ali. Pat does that frequently and although he never says so explicitly, one gets the sense that he agrees when he elevates a comment to its own post.

    Still, I largely agree with the problem as FB Ali states it. Juan Cole, on the other hand, is right but for all the wrong reasons. He doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on in Afghanistan, nor the complex history and environment there.

    And on Obama, he said over a year ago that he would increase the force by two brigades. Since he made that statement in a speech, the force has increased by about two brigades. I wonder if he’s realized that happened.

  • I’ve seen Col Lang write the same thing himself. That was just the first post I found the sentiment in over at his place. The key point, as I mentioned in the body of the post, is that I don’t think that victory in Afghanistan has been clearly defined. Not nearly as clearly defined as victory in Iraq has (and that’s fuzzy enough).

  • The idea of “victory” in American lexicon presupposes a complete end: we’ve won, now we go home. That simply isn’t going to happen in Afghanistan, any more than it would in Haiti (where we’ve been involved off and on for over a century) or parts of Africa or SE Asia. What has to happen to keep us completely out of Afghanistan is either a fundamental change in our superpower role (say, a return of isolationism), the complete collapse of the jihadi ideology as happened with Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades, a complete change in Afghanistan’s culture and ability to self-govern that obviates the ability of the Taliban and al Qaeda to get any traction there, or the appearance of a much bigger problem to solve (such as a war with China over Taiwan or a domestic economic collapse akin to the Great Depression). In other words, we will be involved in Afghanistan for a long time. There will be no “victory” in the American sense, just situation management to keep the place from being a base for staging terror attacks. This will potentially expand to involve the FATA in Pakistan, if Pakistan cannot keep that area from being a sanctuary for active terrorists; and if it does, there would not be victory there, either.

    We are not leaving that area any time in the next decade or more, and when we do eventually leave it won’t be with a sense of accomplishment, even though we will have accomplished (hopefully) preventing the use of the area as a staging base for attacks against us.

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