Stop Talking About Leaving

Tuesday night, Obama will call for a 30,000-troop surge, but also put limits on the U.S. stay in Afghanistan. Peter Beinart says that's exactly the wrong way to get Afghans to own the war.

11.29.09 11:37 PM ET

Over the past several months, two different Afghanistan debates have unfolded side by side. Outside the White House, pundits have debated whether we should stay in Afghanistan or leave. But inside the White House, according to news reports, leaving has never been a serious option. Instead, the debate has been about how many more American forces to send. On the blogs and op-ed pages, being an Afghanistan dove has meant wanting to withdraw U.S. troops. Inside the Obama administration, however, being an Afghanistan dove has meant wanting to increase U.S. troop levels by “only” 20,000. No wonder Frank Rich is an angry man.

The best way for Obama to sustain domestic support for the Afghan War is to show progress on the ground. And telling Afghans that we’re about to leave is exactly the wrong way to bring that progress about.

Tomorrow night, when President Obama unveils his Afghanistan strategy to the nation, these parallel debates will collide. Obama, it appears, will announce that he’s deploying about 30,000 more U.S. troops. And yet in an effort to appease the doves in his party, he will reportedly veil this act of escalation in the language of de-escalation. “Our time there will be limited,” explained Press Secretary Robert Gibbs last week, in a preview of the administration talking points. “I think that’s important for people to understand.”

I don’t think they’re going to understand; it’s all too clever by half. At this point, telling the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan that “our time there will be limited” does little good. They already know that; in fact, they think we’re halfway out the door. Pakistani elites are obsessed with the memory of American abandonment after the Cold War. We pushed them into fighting a major war against Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers, and then, when the Soviets left, we left too, leaving Pakistan to deal with the wreckage. Now, once again, we’ve pushed them into war: demanding that they send their army to fight the Pakistani Taliban in the badlands of South Waziristan. If Obama tells Pakistanis that—troop surge notwithstanding—we’re getting ready to leave, they’re less likely to continue the fight. Why provoke the Taliban if you’re going to have to face them alone?

The same holds true inside Afghanistan itself. After decades of anarchy and war, Afghans have learned that survival requires backing the side that’s likely to win, and right now, that doesn’t look like us. According to polls, America and its Afghan allies—although far less popular than we once were—are still considerably more popular than the Taliban. But that means little if Afghans believe we’re about to leave. As one Afghan parliamentarian recently told Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of The Wall Street Journal, “At the beginning, everyone supported the Americans. But now a lot of locals don’t believe in a U.S. or government victory anymore. They expect the Americans to leave, so they are casting their support to the Taliban.” Eventually, to be sure, America will need to stress that it’s not going to establish a long-term colonial presence in Afghanistan. But the time for sending that message will be after Afghans believe their government can survive once we’ve gone. The Iraq experience is instructive in this regard. In 2006, the Bush administration doubled down militarily with the surge. Then, once America’s increased military commitment (along with other factors) had strengthened Iraq’s government, the Bushies appeased nationalist hostility by setting a timetable for withdrawal. In Afghanistan, there’s actually less nationalist hostility, which makes it all the more important that Obama signal not that America is about to leave, but that America is willing to stay.

Of course, Obama won’t only be talking to South Asians tomorrow night; he’ll be talking to Americans, too. And it is Americans, administration officials seem to believe, who must be told that Obama’s escalation is actually a prelude to withdrawal. But this misreads domestic politics. The press constantly tells us that Americans have soured on the Afghan War. But buried in the small print is that even with this souring, Americans are still as likely to support escalation as de-escalation. The de-escalators, of course, are mostly Obama’s fellow Democrats. But it’s precisely because they are Democrats that they have little real leverage. The Democratic Congress, let’s remember, could not even end the Iraq War—a far more unpopular conflict led by a far more unpopular president. There is zero chance that congressional Democrats will defund a war that retains substantial support led by a president they generally admire. And what is MoveOn going to do? Run a primary challenger against Obama in 2012? Afghanistan notwithstanding, Obama retains a visceral connection to the black and white liberal bases of his party. Running a primary challenger against him would be like conservatives running a primary challenger against Ronald Reagan in 1984. It’s not going to happen.

Politically, the bigger concern for Obama isn’t how long Americans think we’re going to stay in Afghanistan; it’s whether they think we can win. As political scientists Christopher Gelpi, Peter Feaver, and Jason Reifler have documented, Americans don’t only turn against wars because Americans die—they turn against wars because they decide Americans are dying in a hopeless cause. That means that the best way for Obama to sustain domestic support for the Afghan War is to show progress on the ground. And telling Afghans that we’re about to leave is exactly the wrong way to bring that progress about.

Obama, it appears, has made a choice. America is not leaving Afghanistan any time soon; to the contrary, we’re wading deeper in. It’s a defensible choice, but only if Obama acknowledges and defends it. There’s no having it both ways. Tomorrow night, if the president describes sending 30,000 more troops as an exit strategy, he will be misleading Americans when he most needs their trust. Worse, he’ll be misleading himself.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.