The best thing about the middle course on Afghanistan set out by President Obama at West Point was that he didn’t choose the other options. He correctly rejected the notion of standing pat as losing slowly and divisively. He rightly said no to bugging out as a diplomatic and political disaster. And he courageously squashed going for an all-out win as open-ended, likely to end in costly failure anyway, and well beyond any reasonable definition of American interests. His middle way is fraught with its own uncertainties and with terrible internal contradictions. It’s a doubling down on a bad bet in the hope that the boost from the U.S. troop increase plus the shock of impending responsibility will spur friendly Afghans to fight as hard for their freedom as the Taliban does for its lunatic ideas.
Obama’s middle course at least offers some promise of success—and perhaps more importantly, gives Afghans a more than decent chance to get their act together.
But Mr. Obama has made the decision. It would be easy to score points at his expense. But the decision is made—and it won’t be undone. Enough Republicans and Democrats will support it in Congress. So, the job of political leaders and policy experts now is to figure out how to help the president make his middle course more workable and reduce the risks of failure.
• More Daily Beast experts on Obama’s speech • Watch: 7 Key Moments of the Address By urging this, I’m reversing a promise I made years ago after the Vietnam War. That war was the central professional experience of my life. I worked in the Senate and the Pentagon for the early years of the war. I supported the war. When it was done, when I looked back at it and wrote a book about it, I concluded that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson steered a middle way because they felt they couldn’t win and couldn’t get out. Thus, they went step by step, deeper and deeper, doing just enough not to lose, pursuing a horribly costly war without any real prospect of a good outcome, simply hoping for something to turn up. I vowed I wouldn’t be a party to that kind of thinking again. I promised myself that when faced with a situation drowning in contradictions and highly contestable American interests, I would argue either to win or to withdraw.
And here I am staring at Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I can’t keep my promise. We can’t just walk away from Afghanistan. That would weaken our efforts in the far more important battle in Pakistan to keep nukes out of the hands of extremists. And it would dishonor the sacrifices made thus far. We can’t win, either. By anyone’s reckoning, that would take five to 10 years under the best of assumptions. Those who say the United States can pacify and rebuild Afghanistan in that time frame (or any time, for that matter) may be kidding themselves, but they’re certainly conning others. And the costs of “winning” would be prohibitive: perhaps $2 trillion, well beyond American interests and needs. Nor can we stay where we are and pretend we can train thousands more in the Afghan army and police force in the next two years. That pretense would put American troops already there at greater risk; the result would be defeat in the end, in any event.
Obama’s middle course at least offers some promise of success—and perhaps more importantly, gives Afghans a more than decent chance to get their act together. And if they do, they need not fear American abandonment. As I understand the president’s policy, he would continue to fully support a continuing Afghan effort after most American troops are withdrawn at some indefinite point in the future—with money, arms, training, intelligence, and logistics—if Afghans shape up their government and demonstrate a genuine willingness to fight.
What can be done to strengthen the odds for the Afghans?
First, stand up to the baloney being served by many Republicans. They’re trying to create the impression that Obama has committed to withdrawing all American forces in a year or two. In fact, all he’s said is that he would “begin” withdrawals in July 2011, and that the pace of further withdrawals would depend on “circumstances.” That is not a timetable for withdrawals. It is merely the beginning of an unspecified process of withdrawing most U.S. forces from combat. It is the duty of TV anchors and journalists to point out that distortion every single time it is uttered. It is un-American and unpatriotic to repeat such lies. It undermines the very confidence the Afghans must have to shoulder the burdens they must bear. Unless rebutted, these Republicans will foster the very defeat in Afghanistan which they insist will destroy American security. False Republican charges of an Obama pullout are already rattling Afghans and Pakistanis—and causing policy problems for the future.
Second, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and America’s top military brass, especially Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus—the NATO commander in Afghanistan and the overall U.S. regional commander, respectively—should clearly state their full support for the president’s policy. Anything less than that will create self-defeating suspicions and doubts about the policy from the outset. They got almost everything they asked for, and faster than they requested or expected. And while no one talks about it, they also have more than 100,000 defense contractors at work in Afghanistan right now. Plus, they’ve been given thousands of other military personnel to provide various services in Afghanistan that don’t count against the presidentially approved totals.
(General Petraeus phoned me Thursday night and said, "You can write that I called and that I told you I'm 100 percent supportive of President Obama's decisions and policy on Afhanistan.")
Third, America’s great Pakistani friends have to effectively shut down the Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan. Otherwise, no level of U.S. forces can stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Washington is giving the Paks billions of dollars in economic aid; America is their life line for arms and intelligence as well. They can’t keep telling us to fight in Afghanistan and yet at the same time help the Taliban kill us there. It’s outrageous. Even China and Russia shouldn’t stand in America’s way on this. They’ve got as much to worry about from these Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists as Americans do. Also, conservatives and liberals should be able to join hands to send a strong message to Islamabad. Mr. Obama and the United States can use some nonpartisan help here.
Finally, at West Point, Mr. Obama talked to Americans as grownups. Wouldn’t it be nice if some considered responding as adults—as Americans first and political nutjobs and self-serving pols second? Obama put Afghanistan into a larger and more meaningful context than the affairs of one country alone. “As president,” he said, “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I do not have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, ‘Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.’" Washington is confronting six other actual and potential crises around the world, in addition to an economic crisis at home. Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of that list, and we shouldn’t forget it.
Most important of all, Obama reminded us, is the American economy. “[We have failed],” he said, “to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy… So we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars.” He continued: “But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy.”
Sure, the West Point speech was filled with politics and double talk. It’s impossible to get through a crisis like Afghanistan, especially one where Mr. Obama contributed so much to the confusion himself, without playing games. But the main game now is to help make Mr. Obama’s Afghan policy work—for America’s sake.
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.