international analysis and commentary

Afghan elegy: a doomed mission and Obama’s choices

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At last the agony is almost over. At the end of May 2014 – after 13 years, 2,000 Americans dead, and a staggering $1 trillion poured into the sand – President Obama announced the final departure date for US soldiers from Afghanistan. By the end of 2016, just 20 days before Obama’s successor is sworn in, America’s longest war will finally come to an end.

In announcing that the curtain is falling, the President sensibly said, “We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan will be decided by Afghans.” T.E. Lawrence could not have said it better himself. What a tragically expensive lesson has at last been learned in the quicksand of Afghanistan about the horrible follies of nation building.

At this late juncture, the President made it amply clear that leaving Kabul on any terms is part of his larger foreign policy strategy. Since he came to office, his basic overseas mandate has been crystal clear: American must avoid the neoconservative excesses of the hapless Bush administration, winding down the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not caring overmuch what is left in their wake on the ground) and must avoid at all costs any further new foreign policy adventures that could come back to haunt the US. As Obama said early on, “I was elected to end wars, not start them.” Nothing must get in the way of this limiting, but necessary, imperative.

The surge was always less than meets the eye
The key moment for the Obama administration regarding Afghanistan came early on, with the protracted debate over the merits of an American surge in troops to salvage the increasingly precarious mission. The end result was classic Obama, expertly geared toward American domestic political outcomes, even if they made for poor policy on the ground.

By agreeing in 2009 to the Pentagon’s urgent request for 33,000 more troops on the ground to stabilize the situation, Obama ended up pleasing official Washington. Foreign policy maximalists – who at elite levels still rather incredibly dominate both parties (neocons on the right, Wilsonians on the left) – were delighted with the President’s seemingly newfound resolve.

But there was an important catch: Obama gave the generals the troops they wanted only in exchange for adopting a strict July 2011 timetable as a cast-in-stone date to begin winding down the whole operation. The proponents of the surge had precious little time to initiate and see to fruition the new counter-insurgency strategy, as well as the requisite nation building needed on the ground.

In practical policy terms, then, the surge amounted to throwing bones to the maximalists, presenting them with symbolic “victories” while all the while following through on the President’s much more limited, realist, overall foreign policy strategy. For the White House it was the ultimate win-win: if the surge somehow (despite everything) worked, the President would be lauded as a genius. If, as was far more likely, the whole thing came to nothing, he then had the practical evidence to do what he wished to do in the first place: Get the hell out of Afghanistan.

At the domestic political level, the surge had something in it for almost everyone. Leftish Democrats, Obama’s base, hated the surge but loved the timeline. Neocons hated the timeline, but loved the surge. Elite Neocons and Wilsonians were very pleased that nation-building still ostensibly drove White House thinking about Afghanistan, and even realists were encouraged that the surge placed real limits on what seemed to be up until then just another an open-ended American commitment to try to re-make a society of which we knew little. The overriding practical point is that – whether you believe in the nation-building unicorn or not – there is simply no way a country like Afghanistan was going to be turned around in such a short period of time. This is the single greatest clue as to the fact that the White House was in reality already heading for the exits, under the guise of the surge.

You can almost hear the powerful political advisors around the President getting their talking points in order, in order to combat their foreign policy enemies. “We gave you the troops you craved. In General Petraeus, the hero of Iraq, we gave you the commander you desired. We all agreed to the timeline. The results simply aren’t there. We have to begin to get out.”

As with Vietnam, the surge was in the end all about domestic politics, rather than foreign policy. The surge amounted to an elaborate trap designed to ensnare the maximalists. It masked the President’s overarching foreign policy strategy, which called for getting out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, without getting the blame for losing the war. The 18 months President Obama gave the military was never going to be a sufficient period of time to allow for the nation-building effort that was indispensable, if the Pentagon was to run an effective counter-insurgency strategy. The surge was never the point; leaving was.

The sobering takeaway
So what doomed the Afghan mission? Beyond basic conceptual mistakes such as having no domestic partner in country possessing a scintilla of political legitimacy, and setting up a centralized constitutional structure for an organically very diffuse place, one fundamental point springs to mind. In the words of the great political thriller All the President’s Men, “follow the money.”

More than almost anything else, the salient historical fact is that the Afghan conflict began in an era of unipolarity, and ended in one of multipolarity. In other words, the facts on the ground in country did not change very much over the last 13 years, while the very power structure of the planet did.

Nowhere was this more the case than over finances. When the war began America was without economic rival. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers (and the near collapse of the American and global economic system) we find ourselves living in the very different economic world of America, China, and the BRICS.

Whatever the exact final cost, suffice it to say the Afghan war was horrendously expensive, coming in at well over a staggering $1 trillion. In the end, one trooper in the field cost an unimaginable $1 million per year. The easiest laugh line there is to go for while speaking on foreign policy in America regarding Iraq and Afghanistan is to ask if people want their trillion back. The answer is so obvious and so overriding that it makes a mockery of all the apologists for both of George W. Bush’s wars. Wars of choice are simply a luxury a straightened US can no longer afford. 

From the start President Obama was well aware of this. He has rightly said, “We cannot simply afford to ignore the price of the wars,” going on to say, “The nation I am interested in building is America.” America is a very different country, and we live in a very different world from the one the war in Afghanistan began in.

In the end, the war in Afghanistan is perhaps the ultimate Greek tragedy. The very intellectual underpinnings of the unipolar American foreign policy belief system simply came to outlive their time. Given this, and tied to the wrenching human costs, it is hard to think of anything much sadder.