When faced with untenable alternatives, consider your imperative.” (Admiral Helena Cain)
Rory Stewart, prospective MP for Penrith and the Border, has written a thoughtful response in the latest New York Review of Books to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan policy given at West Point on 1 December 2009. Stewart’s conclusions:
What can now be done to salvage the administration’s position? Obama has acquired leverage over the generals and some support from the public by making it clear that he will not increase troop strength further. He has gained leverage over Karzai by showing that he has options other than investing in Afghanistan. Now he needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence. This is what the administration began to do in the days following the speech. As National Security Adviser General James Jones said, “That date is a ‘ramp’ rather than a cliff.” And as Hillary Clinton said in her congressional testimony on December 3, their real aim should be to “develop a long-term sustainable relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, primarily our abandonment of that region.”
A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.
What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.
Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.
I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.
Barack Obama : Remarks in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, given at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, 2009-12-01.
Rory Stewart : Afghanistan: What could work. The New York Review of Books, 57 (1), 2010-01-14.