Obama's Democratic Backlash Over Afghanistan

On the eve of key Afghan elections, Obama has a new headache: big-name left-wing critics. Benjamin Sarlin on the threat they pose to Obama’s agenda.

Chris Hondros / Getty Images

As President Obama’s generals consider asking for more troops in Afghanistan, the White House is finding itself confronted with a new problem: lefty war critics. They aren’t fringe figures, either. The latest eminences to ask tough questions about the dramatic shift in Afghanistan policy include Rory Stewart, the best-selling author; filmmaker Robert Greenwald; even Obama’s own advisor Lee Hamilton, the former vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. While not a coordinated movement, these early rumblings of skepticism could gain momentum over time, providing yet another headache for Obama.

“It doesn’t make any strategic sense at all to keep pumping these troops and resources into this one problematic area when there are more problematic areas of the world—Pakistan alone is 20 times more problematic.”

“Certainly we need to look much, much more broadly at our strategic interests and realize Afghanistan is one problem among many and we simply can’t put all our money and all our troops in that particular basket,” Stewart, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, told The Daily Beast.

Stewart added, “It doesn’t make any strategic sense at all to keep pumping these troops and resources into this one problematic area when there are more problematic areas of the world—Pakistan alone is 20 times more problematic.”

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton caused a stir last week with an op-ed suggesting that the U.S. would have to accept some Taliban presence in Afghanistan and that waning public approval of the war was an “important factor” in the war’s sustainability. He concluded with a loaded yet open-ended question: “is this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today’s world?”

Afghanistan veteran Andrew Exum, who runs the popular blog Abu Muqawama, recently began a feature on his site asking his readers to give their best answer to the same question.

The most vocal skeptics so far of the new Afghanistan policy are mostly left-of-center and largely confined to wonkish circles. There is little grassroots activity aimed at blocking a troop buildup, let alone exiting entirely (director Robert Greenwald’s Rethink Afghanistan film series is an exception). Nonetheless, top members of the Obama administration have acknowledged that time might be limited to get things right. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that policy-makers needed to show progress within one year or risk cratering public support.

Rory Stewart, whose book The Places in Between recounted his 2001 journey on foot across Afghanistan, has made waves in recent weeks by suggesting that policy-makers take a more realistic view of the country’s relative importance to the West. Afghanistan, Stewart notes, lacks critical natural resources or military assets that would make a major investment worthwhile. Moreover, to keep Al Qaeda from establishing a base for planning successful international attacks, expensive state building efforts may not be necessary. Even if efforts to stabilize Afghanistan succeed, terrorists could move on to weak or failed states like Somalia or Yemen.

“I think there is definitely a sense that people are beginning to get a bit worried that the military is trying to steamroll the situation,” Stewart said. “This is a good chance to turn around and try to mobilize arguments that more troops are not necessarily the answer and may in fact not even be justified.”

But judging the progress in Afghanistan is problematic—American goals include such expansive efforts as opium reduction, training Afghan security forces, and rooting out corruption. The administration has had a tough time coming up with the metrics to measure concrete gains. Obama’s point man on Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, didn’t soothe too many worried minds last Wednesday when he said that he would use Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote to determine success in Afghanistan: “We’ll know it when we see it.”

This fuzziness has given critics, like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a greater opening to make the case for a smaller footprint.

“The first thing you do is be very clear-eyed in defining exactly what your interests there are, and U.S. interests are quite limited,” Bacevich said. “That fact, and it is a fact, has gotten completely lost. The assumption seems to me is that Afghanistan represents a vital national security interest. It doesn’t—it’s an underdeveloped country on the other side of the Earth that doesn’t make anything we need, doesn’t have anything we need, and, frankly, as long as Afghanistan the place doesn’t become a sanctuary for jihadists plotting against us, it’s not clear we care what happens there any more than what happens in Paraguay.”

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Although drawing down forces in Afghanistan would raise humanitarian concerns, such as the treatment of Afghan women, such arguments for maintaining a large presence in the country are well-intentioned but ultimately misplaced, said Stewart.

“We’re not primarily fighting in Afghanistan for the sake of the Afghan people,” said Stewart, who runs a nonprofit, Turquoise Mountain, that helps fund traditional craft workers in Kabul. “We do care about them and can do a lot of development assistance. But that’s not the reason troops are there dying and fighting.”

Stewart added that humanitarian workers are largely limited in their abilities to operate so long as there is an active insurgency targeting them.

Every person interviewed for this article agreed that a get-out-of-Afghanistan movement was still largely theoretical. But one supporter of an expanded military presence in Afghanistan, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he fears political limitations could eventually endanger the war effort.

“I think they do have a fair amount of latitude, especially when Obama’s party controls Congress, but I don’t think there’s an indefinite amount of time,” O’Hanlon told The Daily Beast. He laid out one worst-case scenario in which a souring war turns into a political football for the Republicans in the 2010 elections. Within the Democratic Party, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who supported the invasion of Afghanistan, has already said he would likely oppose further troop increases.

With American public opinion polls showing majority opposition to the war, Afghanistan’s elections this week could be key in demonstrating progress toward a stable government. But even the most optimistic picture painted by military officials envisions at least several more years of American troops in Afghanistan and perhaps more than 10. Today’s rumbles of dissent could become tomorrow’s mass protests. And, as news reports have noted, there are uncomfortable parallels between Obama in Afghanistan and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, where a popular president with an ambitious domestic agenda found himself bogged down in his predecessor’s escalating war.

The administration, it seems, would be best served by coming up with an answer to those asking why we’re in Afghanistan.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.