Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, sometime consultant to General McChrystal, and a Middle East expert who blogs as “Abu Muqawama,” joins in the general hand-wringing over the state of Afghanistan. He says it’s “probably true” that the “United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” but like much of the commentariat, he is growing pessimistic about our chances of safeguarding those interests. He renounces his previous belief that the “United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” He now writes that this is “probably false”:
For a variety of reasons — some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn’t exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn’t exist in 2007 — the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort. They might have in 2003. But in 2009? In retrospect, it was always going to be unlikely, and I think I personally overestimated U.S. and allied resources available (including but not limited to political will).
I agree with him that the political will to prevail appears to be waning. But I think it’s bizarre that he treats “political will” as a fixed, exogenous factor like the weather or the terrain. Hurricane Katrina did not make impossible the success of the surge in Iraq; so too the BP oil spill does not make impossible the success of the ongoing surge in Afghanistan. The question is whether President Obama will have the will to see this through as President Bush did in the face of much greater public opposition.
All it would take would be a speech from the president saying something like this: “I was wrong about trying to set a timeline for American withdrawal. I wanted to inject fresh vigor into our military and diplomatic efforts. But I now realize that my talk about starting to pull American troops out next summer has been misinterpreted; it has caused some in the region to doubt our resolve. So let me be clear. We will stay as long as necessary to defeat the cruel evil of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and associated extremists. I now pledge that, to paraphrase another young Democratic president, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty in Afghanistan.”
Boom. With a few gutsy words like that, President Obama could instantly change assumptions about our willpower. That’s all it would take, because in all likelihood the Democratic Party would fall in behind him — or at least not challenge him too aggressively. Republicans, for their part, would enthusiastically support him as they have whenever he has increased our commitment to Afghanistan.
I admit that this is unlikely to happen (particularly the last line from John F. Kennedy, a very different kind of Democrat!), but it’s hardly impossible given that Obama has already done full or partial flip-flops on other issues, such as civil trials for terrorists and the closing of Gitmo. We have the resources (money, manpower) to prevail in Afghanistan — just as we had the resources to prevail in Iraq. The question is whether President Obama will commit those resources and give our commanders the time needed to make effective use of them.
That remains to be determined, but I would caution Andrew and others about suggesting that the necessary willpower simply doesn’t exist and can’t be manufactured. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.