I've been hearing two things a lot about the President's choices on Afghanistan strategy: first, that it's time to either "go all in or get out", the second that he is "dithering" in the face of an urgent decision. Both seem to me profoundly unhelpful, driven more by political positioning than by serious analysis. Sending more troops may in fact be the right call -- I'm open-minded on that question -- but the attempts to bull-rush the process are problematic on their face.
"All in or get out" is a typical false choice offered by advocates of any position who support the "all in" option in question, since it's so much easier to argue the risks of "getting out" than it is to argue against intermediate options. And as for the rush, why make such a momentous choice precisely at a moment of total political chaos in Afghanistan and the near complete absence of a legitimate partner on which to build due to the rampant fraud which eviscerated the Afghan election?
This is particularly problematic because, as the President's advisers clearly understand, there is absolutely no reason to think that Gen. McChrystal's current request is really "all in". McChrystal’s review is admirably clear and quite honest that even with such changes, the policy may not succeed.
The overwhelming odds are that if the escalation option is chosen, in a year or two we will be confronting the exact same questions. More troops will once again be needed, a new strategy will once again be demanded, we’ll still be reading about how the Taliban is out-communicating us and about how the corruption of the Karzai government poses a serious challenge. And then the exact same debate will recur… the Kagans will demand more troops, dark mutterings about tensions between the administration and the generals will roil the waters, the Washington Post editorial page will publish debates where everyone is on the same side, the smart think-tankers will agonize over the tough choices but ultimately come down on the side of escalation. Might as well have this debate now, and get it right.
I'm skeptical about the ambitious goals on offer because the odds of it succeeding on those terms are exceedingly low. If the goal is the creation of a functioning, effective, legitimate Afghan state then I would say the prospects are close to zero. Not with 40,000 troops, not with 400,000 troops, not in twelve months and not in twelve years. Afghanistan has gone through nearly thirty years of non-stop war and is as close to a functional anarchy as most anyplace on Earth. I am unmoved by arguments that there was once a decent state fifty or a hundred years ago. Thirty years of continuous war and anarchy are not so easily overcome – with or without the Afghan election fiasco. If the goal is lower than that – local level security, keeping the Taliban on the ropes, etc – then maybe this can be done for a while. More troops would help do it in more places, but I doubt it would add up to the national level.
Which brings me to a serious question: what’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.
Good for the President's team to take the time to have a serious debate about this and not give in to the politically expedient path (in either direction). The readouts on yesterday's big Afghan strategy meeting reflect exactly what you want to see from a President making a tough call. I would urge them to set aside both of these corrosive, misleading notions -- that the choice is between "all in" or "getting out", and that the time for decision ins now. Why is this not the right time to muddle through, avoiding the worst outcomes and changing strategy at the local level where possible, while waiting for the political situation in Afghanistan to clarify? Muddling through might not make for sexy headlines, but it’s probably good enough for what the U.S. needs to accomplish in Afghanistan for now and is closer to the resources actually available.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.