Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 1. Afghanistan


Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.

This week I am putting up my thoughts on accepting a ‘defeat’ in the Greater Middle East (at least for a little while); cutting our losses; and a long-term exit from a region that is consuming US power at a remarkably frightening rate. My ‘rah-rah’ instincts are to stay and ‘win’ and my blogging to date has supported the GWoT pretty strongly, but increasingly the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam linger in my head. It’s hard not to see this debate like those of the Johnson administration in 1964-65. The risks of staying and draining US power, especially in the face of rising Asia, increasingly worry me. Perhaps living in Asia and seeing how wealthy they are all getting, while we run all over the ME, has instilled greater fear in me of US overstretch. The GWoT needs to end soon, or at least we need to find a far less expensive way to fight it.

The intellectual drivers of this rethink are all the good punditry that has emerged in the last 2 months of the Obama review. (This time has been an excellent public participatory debate on the republic’s foreign policy. Let’s hope this style recurs. It is downright revelatory and democratic compared to W.) Particularly influential on me have been Walt, Kaplan, and Greenwald. Walt’s constant and intelligent blogging at FP has really forced me to rethink how unlikely, unnecessary, and costly a counterinsurgency ‘victory’ would be, and the importance of husbanding US power for other concerns (Asia). Kaplan convinced me that we are helping others a lot more than ourselves. And Greenwald convinced me that my own thinking on US geopolitical problems too easily slides to the standard US ‘foreign policy community’ response of more force, more intervention, more effort. If all you read all day is stuff from think-tanks and policy institutes like Brookings, Rand, or the Council of Foreign Relations, you’d think the US should be the world’s first problem solver. But Walt is probably right that that is recipe for overstretch, and Greenwald is probably right that that puts a lot of blood on US hands.

So I am going wobbly on Afghanistan first:

Like Friedman and Kupchan, I am starting to think this is a bridge too far – at least right now. I am not so sure, but the costs of this thing seem pretty high, and likelihood of failure too, and it is not clear how much the US needs a victory in Afghanistan defined by a decade of nation-building (the McChrystal approach). Why my change of heart?

1. US finances are a mess, even worse than usual, and US unemployment just broke 10%. This constraint is worsening as the budget outlook worsens. It should condition ALL new foreign policy outlays, especially those involving the military, as wars usually out-cost expectations. A major counterinsurgency ramp-up may be the ‘imperial’ indulgence that pushes the US into a financial crisis. Think about the parallel of Johnson’s expensive Vietnam build-up and the costs it brought in the 70s.

2. The US partner in Afghanistan is really bad. Karzai is so obviously corrupt now. The stolen election may be the last straw. US troops are now in the bizarre position of tacitly protecting warlords, as well as the drug growers who supply opium in the US. How can we win if the government is a lost cause? Isn’t that oxymoronic?

3. The US Army is badly overstretched by any reasonable measure. Recruitment is problematic. Gear has worn down faster in hard conditions of Afghanistan (and Iraq) than expected. The Army and Marines need some pretty serious institutional downtime to rebuild capacities and absorb GWoT lessons.

4. International cooperation on Afghanistan is pathetic; this is a coalition of the unwilling. The Europeans are wholly disinterested. They just want to come home. Obama can’t get anything more from them than W got. America’s Asian allies (Japan, SK, Australia) are not enthusiastic at all. Korea will go, but they will be non-combat forces. Japan won’t go, and is even probably going to stop its Indian Ocean refueling operation. Australia won’t go either. Not even the UN can really function in Afghanistan now either after last week’s bombing. And Pakistan’s role is downright pernicious.

If this sounds like I am flip-flopping, that is somewhat correct. Try here for my argument 2 months ago in favor of the Afghan COIN. I am genuinely unsure of the right course – as is Obama apparently, so at least I am in good company.

11 thoughts on “Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 1. Afghanistan

  1. “but increasingly the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam linger in my head”

    I agree with that. I have been having the same sentiments. Karzai, what a pity. He is trying to act like an African “BIG MAN”. He is not quite there yet, but at this rate he will get there in his own tradition.


    • You have got to be thinking, secretly perhaps, the same thing I am. This war, or at least US participation in it, can’t just go on and on. Afghanistan is now the longest war in US history (depending on how you date Vietnam.) There has to be some kind of serious out in at least the mid-term. The ME is sapping US power.


  2. Considering the 11th-century level of development in Afghanistan, I don’t know how it could NOT be corrupt. There is so vanishingly little to build a state upon. And, assuming we do, the bad guys can, over a long weekend, decamp to Pakistan (those who have not already) or Somalia or any of a dozen other places.

    Afghanistan has no institutions. It has no enlightenment or democratic values. It doesn’t care about the drug war – imagine a dirt-poor Afghan farmer torn between feeding some rich Westerner’s heroin habit or feeding his family. He’s not torn in the slightest.

    This is all about recognizing the limits of power, and of conserving that power for when we really need it. This isn’t the hill we want to die on.

    So, I agree with the two of you that the case for continued investment here seems increasingly weak. Sadly, although I like Obama and appreciate how deliberate his decision-making style is, I just think he’s too conservative to make any dramatic changes in Afghanistan. I hope he proves me wrong.

    Remember the Northern Alliance? Whatever happened to those guys? Where are the motivated and ambitious Afghan moderates fighting for their country? In Karzai’s government?

    The place needs its own Paul Kegame. Screw democracy, how about basic competence?


  3. Pingback: Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 2. Iran « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

    • Yes it does, but the costs to maintinaing such credibility in Afghanistan are skyrocketing. If Afghanistan were moderately functioning and modern, it might make more sense. In this way, Iraq is worth more effort than Afghanistan. But sometimes you hit a point where it is just a bridge too far, more commitment is just too much.

      That is what I believe has happened to the US in Afghanistan. With 10+% unemployment and $1.4 trillion deficit, it is time to start thinking of cutting our exposure. I just don’t think we have the luxury of fighting for credibility at the moment.


  4. Pingback: More Troops – What a Surprise…Do the Kagans EVER Say Anything Else? « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  5. Pingback: Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 3. When is it Ok to Lose a War? « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

  6. Pingback: Illiberal Zionism Update: Beinart Nails It « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

  7. Pingback: Off to China… 2) The ‘Peaceful Rise’ Thesis « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

  8. Pingback: Global Security in 7 Minutes! (3. Solutions) « Asian Security Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s