The debate over what to do next in Afghanistan has been politically polarized between those who attack the Obama administration for “dithering” and supporters who believe the president needs ample time to be a “decider.” Unfortunately, this is a wrong and false debate.
The reason is, as this column has frequently observed, there are no good choices regarding Afghanistan – only bad and worse ones. No matter what this or any other administration decides, the outlook for Afghanistan is for further tragedy, violence and instability. Hence, quickness of decision is not relevant.
A little history also counts. Many crisis decisions made in haste go wrong. That was not true after Dec. 7, 1941, when the United States had no choice but to go to war. But in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, Lyndon Johnson used that as the pretense for what proved to be massive escalation in Vietnam even though the second attack never in fact occurred. And while George W. Bush the “decider” quickly chose to launch Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan following Sept. 11, 2001, he also did not dither in electing to invade Iraq based on “slam dunk” intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a second Gulf of Tonkin moment. Clearly, no administration wishes to repeat those errors of judgment, especially when made in haste.
Here are certain realities facing the president in deciding on Afghanistan. First, when the original AFPAK strategy was announced, President Obama was only two months in office and did not have the experience and understanding then that he has today. Second, whether or not more troops are ordered to Afghanistan, it will take many months to get them there. Third, while military commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal is absolutely correct that success rests in winning support of the Afghan people, even with enough security in place to protect the population, it is far from certain and probably very unlikely that sufficiently effective governance and economic development can be generated to assure a favorable outcome.
As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously observed, “then there are the unknown unknowns.” Consider three: First, our current strategy has produced huge dependence by Afghans and the Afghan government on us and our allies. Unknown is whether this dependence can be reversed and Afghans can take over responsibility for their own security.
Second, will more foreign troops and civilian workers assigned to Afghanistan have the opposite effect of antagonizing Afghans and, counter-intuitively, make matters worse?
Third, while the Afghan government is accused of massive corruption, the fact is that virtually all of the funding has been controlled and administered by U.S. and non-Afghan agencies. It is there where the real waste has taken place and probably large measures of fraud and abuse. Yet what is being done to correct that?
A further complication has entered this melee. Last Sunday presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the race, making Hamid Karzai the victor. What this means for the legitimacy of the election and Karzai’s next term is uncertain. But most sinister is whether this withdrawal will harden ethnic tensions and differences between Tajiks and Pashtuns – Abdullah is the former and Karzai the latter – and provoke violence and even the possibility of civil war, an outcome that has yet to be raised or discussed.
Given these realities, Obama is absolutely correct in taking time to decide on what to do. Any decision must be based on more than what military commanders may recommend. The future of Afghanistan will be determined politically and not militarily. Military commanders understand that. But their recommendations are based on military and not political judgments, and despite the impressive credentials of our commanders – and they are very impressive – future decisions must encompass broader criteria.
No matter what Obama decides, he will be attacked and accused of making the wrong choice, even if that choice turns out to be the least worst or the best under the circumstances. He should, however, take one further step. He needs to convene a “Red Team” for the purpose of conducting a “no holds barred” assessment to do a cost-benefit analysis of the strategy he selects. This must be entirely candid and rigorous rather than an exercise in spin to help sell, in the most cynical sense, the White House’s strategic choices.
Resistance within this administration for a “Red Team” assessment will be overwhelming. In politics today, half measures are unacceptable and as George W. Bush proclaimed, “You are either with us or against us.” One way to ensure that Afghanistan fails and the situation deteriorates is to let that view dominate how this decision is presented. Dither or decide, but the right thing is to do it honestly and objectively.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was previously published as “To dither or decide over Afghanistan is the wrong debate” in UPI.