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12.13.10

Groundhog Day for Afghan Policy

Obama’s review of his war strategy, set for release Thursday, promises four more years of war in Afghanistan and four more years of economic decline in America.

The Obama administration just finished its review of the situation in Afghanistan. But the president’s team didn’t look hard at U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Nor did they measure all of this against U.S. interests and needs at home.

So, President Obama decided that U.S. forces would continue to bear the brunt of the fighting for four more years and gradually turn over the battles to Afghan forces. In effect, he reaffirmed last month’s NATO communiqué wherein this approach was labeled a “transition” policy. Perhaps this was the most he could get from General David Petraeus, the U.S./NATO commander in Afghanistan, whose views are much more hawkish than the president’s.

Nonetheless, America’s vital interests in Afghanistan were, once again, taken for granted. U.S. forces have to stay and do most of the fighting until the Taliban and al Qaeda are sufficiently weakened for Afghan troops to take over. But why? Why? Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan was the center of the terrorist threat. Now, it’s one of many homes to terrorists, as was seen by the homegrown terrorist attack in Sweden this week. And the argument that success in Afghanistan is necessary to ward off catastrophe in Pakistan is even more specious. Pakistan will resist or fall to extremists because of what happens in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people, not because of what happens in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan itself is no longer a vital interest of the United States, but continuing the war there tears at our own nation’s very vitals. With America drowning under a $1.5 trillion deficit for next year and an almost $15 trillion overall debt, we are verging on banana republic-hood. Most of the $125 billion being spent in and for Afghanistan could better be deducted from those bills. And how on earth can the administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America’s physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing? Of course, I feel for the Afghans; but I feel far, far more for Americans.

How on earth can the administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America’s physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing?

This third policy review in two years has taken weeks and mounds of papers and meetings, like the other two. The results are always the same: more troops (but not this time), more killing of Afghans and Americans, ever higher bills, neverending excuses from our Afghan allies, and no greater safety for the United States. The “transition” policy calls for reductions in U.S. forces, but the timing is still not specified. Petraeus has made quite clear in private, and sometimes even in public, that he intends to keep as many U.S. troops in the field and fighting for as long as possible. His watchwords are “strategic patience,” a phrase proclaimed incessantly by supportive national-security experts in Washington. Indeed, as he has said publicly, the grandchildren of U.S. troops now fighting there should ready themselves to continue the battle. Keep in mind that the general is expected to rotate out of this commanding position before the next U.S. presidential election. Or maybe not. Maybe Obama will keep him in place for political cover during the elections. The price of that cover, of course, will be a large contingent of American forces still in Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, whatever the state of perfection then reached by Afghan forces.

So, when Obama steps to some podium Thursday to announce the results of his policy review, he will reaffirm this transition policy. He will say that U.S. efforts to date are “making progress.” (Obviously, he won’t say anything about the differences between the assessments of the CIA and Petraeus. The CIA sees Petraeus’s portrayal of military progress as somewhat fragile and has fundamental doubts about the U.S.’s ability to transform Afghan institutions and curtail that nation’s famous level of corruption. Nor will the president give any hint of his own skepticism about the general’s estimates of progress.) Further, he will announce that he’s keeping his previous promise to begin some reduction of U.S. forces by July 2011, but he still won’t say how many. He will go on to talk about general plans for U.S. force reductions over the following three years but without any timetables. He will acknowledge problems with the government of President Hamid Karzai, its inefficiencies and corruption, but not suggest in any way that these fundamental flaws in our ally should impair or will determine the rate of U.S. troop withdrawals. He will simply say that the U.S. is pressing ahead with the training of Afghan forces, readying them to take over principal combat responsibility by January 2013.

President Obama will not be grim as he renders these policy verdicts. Administration officials say privately that while he has his doubts and worries about what he is doing in Afghanistan, Obama feels he’s reached an acceptable balance in policy and a workable political consensus in support of that policy. In many respects, Obama’s Afghan policy is much like his recent agreement on taxes with the Republicans. He doesn’t really like a lot of the policy compromises he has reached on Afghan policy with Petraeus or on tax policy with the Republicans. But on both counts, he feels safe politically. As things stand, the Republicans won’t attack him on tax policy and Petraeus won’t flay him on Afghan policy. His own fellow Democrats will scream on both counts, but to the president, they don’t seem to matter much on policy or on politics. He obviously reckons that Democratic liberals have nowhere else to turn, and he’s probably right. But who knows where the political center of gravity will be in a year and a half with America still in the economic doldrums and with America still at war in Afghanistan? And who knows how the President will be able to navigate through all this without his most gifted foreign policy thinker and doer—Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, my dear and best friend.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.