Two noteworthy responses to my column last week ("An Exit Strategy To Die For") deserve my reply. In the online magazine Commentary, Max Boot, one of the most respected foreign-policy voices on the right, explicitly dissented from the central premise of my column. In The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan, though politely not mentioning my column, dedicated their lead editorial to a point-by-point rebuttal to my arguments.
In both instances, they sympathized with my sentiments but disagreed with my reasoning. Both articles also assumed that the arguments I raised will be an increasingly common view on the right (which currently is providing most of the public support for fighting the Afghan war). I agree with that latter point, so it is worth reviewing whether they are right on the former one -- that my reasoning is wrong.
First, let's be clear that Messrs. Kristol, Kagan and Boot and I all agree that America has vital national security interests in Afghanistan that a fully resourced and well-led American effort has a good chance of vindicating, and we also agree that our precipitous exit would have terrible consequences.
Where we differ is on the question of whether the likely level of death and serious wounding of American troops in a counterinsurgency war initially fought without sufficient men and materiel (and hesitantly led from the White House) is likely, nevertheless, to uphold sufficient American national security interests to be justified. They say yes; I say no.
Boot argues: "We don't have the luxury of giving up the war effort now and hope for the best ('a more hawkish successor' to President Barack Obama) in the future. ... Even a reduced level of (American) commitment can help to stave off a catastrophe." He then compares Afghanistan to the end of the Korean War, in which we gave up on retaking the entire peninsula but fought and negotiated to at least keep South Korea from going communist.
I would respond that as we are fighting a counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan (rather than a conventional war, as we did in Korea), the better analogy is Vietnam. President Obama is publicly emphatic that he wants an exit strategy in order to limit the duration of his commitment to Afghanistan. Such an under-resourced effort likely would result in our failure to eliminate (or reduce to inevitable ineffectiveness) the insurgency -- leaving it functional in much of the countryside.
Thus, we would be leaving an ally government holding only the capital and a few other cities. That almost surely would result in total victory for the insurgents shortly after we left (as it did in Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan after the Soviets left) -- not a partition along a negotiated line, as was the case in Korea. None of our security interests would be vindicated -- as Afghanistan would return to its Sept. 10 safe-haven status for al-Qaida. Of course, the longer President Obama stayed in Afghanistan -- even under-resourced -- the longer we would hold off catastrophe.
Kristol and Kagan make a different argument. They argue that notwithstanding the urgings of his political aides, President Obama "may yet do the right thing -- soon, please! -- and provide General McChrystal with the forces he needs to pursue decisive operations in 2010." They cite the president's decision to diminish the role of currently ineffective emissary Richard Holbrooke (and assign lead responsibilities to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) as some evidence of the president's seriousness of purpose. He recognized a weakness in our political effort in Afghanistan and took decisive action.
Beyond that, they argue that "a loyal opposition should press the administration to do the right thing, rather than relieving it of its responsibilities by preemptively deciding it won't." We should continue to press for more troops and criticize "any decisions that undermine the troops' chance of success."
"A withdrawal of Republican support for the war," they point out, "would allow the administration to claim that a collapse of bipartisan support at home compelled the president's acceding to defeat. But if it turns out that the president is ultimately unwilling to commit to succeeding in Afghanistan, he must be held accountable for that decision."
They suggest that Sen. John McCain's behavior between 2003 and 2007 is the proper model for Republicans today. McCain consistently criticized then-President George W. Bush and called for more troops and better strategies in Iraq but "never wavered in his determination to do everything possible to succeed there." But, of course, no one doubted President Bush's determination. It was "merely" a matter of persuading him to change his methods for victory.
In essence, they think or hope that President Obama can be persuaded to be a strong enough war leader to accomplish our objectives. And if not, he must be held accountable -- with no excuse of lack of Republican support for the war.
But I believe that everything the president and his top aides have said and done makes it implausible that he will find within himself the zest to be a willful war leader. And I refuse to bet the lives of perhaps thousands of our troops against that likelihood. Nor do I think it is worth paying that butcher bill just to be able to subsequently hold him accountable.
Leaders -- and publics -- are usually at their most optimistic at the beginning of their commitments to fight wars. Thus, we probably now are seeing the president and his aides at their most optimistic for victory.
My hunch: After whatever the White House soon announces, 2010 will be for building up the Afghan army and government; 2011 will be for starting our exit. We will be out by the spring of 2012 (in time for the presidential election campaign: "I inherited two wars and, in three years, ended them both"). By some time in 2012 or 2013, Taliban will retake Afghanistan or there will be civil war again. Either way, al-Qaida will be again in safe haven -- and all will have been for naught. And every month from now until then, the lives of about another 50 young American troops will be sacrificed for that exit timetable.
I hope I'm wrong, but I am not optimistic.