All of Washington – and much of the world – was waiting to hear President Obama’s Tuesday night speech about the war in Afghanistan.
Most analysts expected a decision to send as many as 35,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next year – packaged as part of a sharpened strategy focused on training Afghan security forces, and emphasizing that America’s commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended. There will also be a call for NATO Allies to do more as well.
It has been three months since ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal submitted his report on Afghanistan to Secretary of Defense Gates. The wrangling that has taken place since then, and now the President’s final announcement, tell a great deal about the conflict and about the changes in American politics since Obama took office.
The first, inescapable observation is that the domestic politics of sustaining America’s commitment in Afghanistan have become much harder. While European Allies have struggled with public opposition for years, the United States had it easy, relying on an American public that was broadly in favor of the war – even seeing it as a counterpoint to an unpopular war in Iraq.
Now things have changed. Members of the Democrat-led Congress, all of whom face re-election in 2010, are confronted with: unemployment exceeding 10 percent; a stalling economic recovery; a ballooning budget deficit; un-finished health care reform; growing public opposition to the war (and war spending); and the knowledge that earlier this month, Republicans won Governorships in New Jersey and Virginia that had until now been held by Democrats. Obama certainly wants to keep control of Congress. So asking his fellow Democrat Members of Congress to now stand in favor of a major troop increase in Afghanistan is difficult indeed.
A second observation, though, is that despite all of this, Afghanistan still matters. There is no turning back. As unpopular as the war has become, the direct connection to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington means that no U.S. President can afford to be labeled “the President who lost Afghanistan.” The international and domestic consequences would be enormous. And this, ultimately, is why President Obama is quite rightly re-committing America to the effort.
The international consequences of a failure in Afghanistan would be dire. It would usher in a humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people – especially its women and children. With extremists able to make use of Afghan territory, it would directly increase the threat to Pakistan, precisely at a time when Pakistani forces are making strides against insurgents in the northwest of that country. It would give a boost to violent Islamist extremists globally, affecting the security of every NATO ally, and countries from Morocco to the Philippines.
A failure in Afghanistan would also set in motion the decline of NATO. As unfair as it may sound to European ears, a failure in Afghanistan would be seen as NATO’s failure, and it would signal to the American Congress and public that European Allies are not prepared to do what it takes to win conflicts far from Europe. Yet if NATO is relegated to the territorial defense of European Allies – rather than serving as a vehicle for joining all NATO Allies together in meeting common global challenges – Americans would quickly lose interest. They would rightly conclude that Europeans are capable of defending Europe by themselves, if only they would invest in it: America is no longer needed. And that would spell a quiet and tragic end to 60 years of the transatlantic relationship serving as the foundation of global security.
A third observation is that while there is deep frustration with corrupt and ineffective governance in Afghanistan, this is no alternative to making the best of working with the existing institutions and structures. The botched election damaged the credibility of President Karzai in the eyes of the international community and his own people. And though this is true, it is equally true that there is no other leader or government who would enjoy greater credibility. Hence the need to buckle down and do what we can to make it better.
Critical to working with existing institutions is the effort to train and deploy with Afghan security forces – military, police, and paramilitary police. Seven months after being launched by NATO leaders at the Strasbourg Summit – and with significant support from Italy, France, and other European Allies –NATO took over the “NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan” on November 21. This effort to train more Afghan forces faster will feature prominently in the expanded U.S. contributions as well, because leaving behind more capable Afghan forces is the only path to eventual withdrawal of foreign forces.
A fourth observation: the contribution of Allies such as Italy in Afghanistan still matters. To begin with, the United States does not have paramilitary police – so trainers from the Carabinieri or the French “gendarmerie” fill a critical gap.
But just as important are the political and psychological dimensions. The only nation capable of making a decisive troop increase is the United States. But for Americans, it is critical to know that they are not acting alone. This is why, even knowing the limits of European Allies, Obama’s decision explicitly leaves room for greater European contributions. And in recent days, the U.S. Administration has been consulting with Allies to try to line up these very contributions.
But European contributions are critical for the rest of the world as well. If the effort in Afghanistan is seen as “America’s war,” it will lose the support of publics from Afghanistan and South Asia right through the Middle East and Europe. But if Europeans also re-commit, it underscores the fact this conflict is really between the “international community” (and the values it stands for), and the violent extremists who seek to impose their brutal will on a helpless population and destabilize an entire region.
And a final observation: The key test is confidence. Afghans know that in the end, they must live with the victors in this struggle. In order to have the courage to stand against the Taliban, to send their daughters to school, and to invest in the economy instead of taking the cheap profit of poppy, the Afghan people must have confidence that we will get the job done. Equally, the Taliban must eventually conclude that they can never win.
The last several months have taken their toll: violence is at record levels and our resolve has been called into question. Now we will see a new American commitment, perhaps to be joined by new European commitments. Will this be enough to instill a sense of confidence – in Afghanistan and in our own publics – that we have finally got this right, and will ultimately prevail?
Kurt Volker is an Atlantic Council senior advisor and member of the Strategic Advisors Group. He is a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and senior State Department official and is now Managing Director of the Center on Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. This essay was previously published as “Le vie di fuga non esistono più” in La Stampa and was written before the speech was delivered; the introduction has been changed to reflect that the speech has been given but the analysis has not.