Commentary Magazine


Cut and Run Was No Strategy for Iraq and Isn’t One for Afghanistan

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written in the Wall Street Journal that we should “un-surge” in Afghanistan. While arguing against total withdrawal, he says “the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.”

Mr. Haass’s recommendation on Afghanistan sounds similar to his (flawed) recommendation on Iraq during the debate about the surge.

In a November 13, 2006, interview with Der Spiegel, Haass said: “We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. … The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word ‘winnable.’ So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, Haass said, “It’s not clear to me that even if you double the level of American troops you would somehow stabilize the situation [in Iraq].”

And on December 10, 2006, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he said this:

I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.” I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the [Iraq Study Group] report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.

So Haass supported a temporary surge in Iraq not because he thought it would work but in order to place the blame on the Iraqis when it failed. There was a notably amoral quality to Haass’s recommendation (the realpolitik Haass might accept this as a compliment).

In his Journal op-ed arguing for undoing the surge in Afghanistan, Haass lays out the “broader reasons to recast policy.” They include:

The greatest threat to U.S. national security stems from our own fiscal crisis. Afghanistan is a significant contributor to this situation and could play an important role in reducing it. A savings of $75 billion a year could help finance much-needed military modernization and reduce the deficit.

Another factor is the increased possibility of a conflict with a reckless North Korea and the continued possibility of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. U.S. military forces must be freed up to contend with these issues. The perception that we are tied down in Afghanistan makes it more difficult to threaten North Korea or Iran credibly—and makes it more difficult to muster the forces to deal with either if necessary.

Haass’s somewhat novel argument, then, is that in order to preserve our capacity to wage future wars, we should lose (in the guise of de-escalation) our current ones. He doesn’t take into account that retreating in Afghanistan would be (rightly) interpreted by nations like Iran and North Korea as weakness on the part of America, thereby emboldening our adversaries. And nowhere does Haass explain how his recommended offshore counterterrorism strategy would work, since credible counterterrorism strikes depend on good intelligence, which is best gathered by ground forces that enjoy the trust of the local population. If we pull out our troops, we lose even that capacity.

One cannot help but suspect that Haass has arrived at a position based on a theory he holds to with dogmatic certitude and has gone in search of arguments to support it. This may explain why Haass is forced to mimic David Stockman on the deficit and Richard Perle on Iran. It’s not a terribly persuasive pose.

Mr. Haass concludes his op-ed this way:

Ultimately Afghanistan is a strategic distraction. U.S. interests there are limited. So, too, are the resources available for national security. It is not surprising that the commander in the field, Gen. David Petraeus, is calling for committing greater resources to the theater. But it is the commander-in-chief’s responsibility to take into account the nation’s capacity to meet all of its challenges, national and international. It is for this reason that the perspectives of Gen. Petraeus and President Obama must necessarily diverge.

The notion that Afghanistan is nothing more than a “strategic distraction” is not terribly serious. Events of the past decade have turned it into something very much more than that.

Defeat there would have profound, negative effects on, among other nations, nuclear-armed Pakistan. While it’s obviously true that events in Afghanistan don’t have unlimited effects on Pakistan, Haass’s insistence that they are almost completely unrelated will come as news to the Pakistani government and virtually everyone else in the region. The capitulation of the United States and the fall of the existing government in a neighboring state, Afghanistan, would have significant ramifications in Pakistan. It would be an enormously important psychological victory for jihadists and the Taliban. Islamists all over the world would assume that if they wait long enough, the U.S. will cut out and move on. And defeat in Afghanistan would have baleful consequences for the people, and especially the women, of Afghanistan (though that dimension of this issue doesn’t appear to enter into Haass’s calculus at all).

When it comes to both military planning and strategic thinking, General Petraeus is simply in a different league than Mr. Haass. The four-star general and Princeton Ph.D. has proved himself to be far wiser, more prescient, and more knowledgeable than the former State Department official. Which is why I’m thankful that America’s 44th president, like America’s 43rd president, is listening to David Petraeus rather than to Richard Haass.

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