Commentary Magazine

Afghanistan and the Liberal Collapse

In September with the war in Afghanistan soon to enter its ninth year, and U.S. commanders broadcasting a need for vital resources to reverse a losing effort, President Obama made a curious appeal: he asked General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to hold off the formal submission of his resource request to the White House. Apparently, the president needed time to think about the war without being distracted by the war.

The commander in chief’s posture in September seemed even more curious given the certainty with which he took the reins in Afghanistan in January. Only a few months into his presidency, Barack Obama announced a bold new plan and a fresh command team to turn around the war, sent 21,000 additional troops to the theater, and appointed the very commander whose request he wished to postpone.

Both the plan and its purpose were first articulated with surety on March 27 by the president. “Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people,” he said that day. “The situation is increasingly perilous.” After ticking off challenges that the U.S. faced in Afghanistan—from insurgent gains, to increased attacks on coalition forces, to the rising American death toll—the president noted that “if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

His stated justification for redoubling the American war effort was nothing if not sweeping. He spoke of Afghanistan and its eastern neighbor Pakistan as “an international security challenge of the highest order” and noted that “the safety of people around the world is at stake.”

During his presidential campaign, Obama described Afghanistan as the “central front on terror,” but in his March policy rollout, he did not confine himself to matters of global security. “For the Afghan people,” he said, “a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people—especially women and girls.” For it is “the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.” He spoke in detail about the need to “help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs,” and to “seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior.” He laid out what he called a “comprehensive strategy” to achieve all these aims.

No longer, he proclaimed, would the Afghanistan effort languish in favor of a supposedly mistaken adventure in Iraq. President Obama made this point numerous times in March. “To focus on the greatest threat to our people,” he said, “America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq.” Again: “For six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq. Now we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.”

And once more: “For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. Those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq. Now that will change.”

What actually changed was the pledge itself.

On September 20, Obama appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and said this: “What I’m not also gonna do, though, is put the resource question before the strategy question. Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there—beyond what we already have.”

The “strategy question,” supposedly settled back in March, had been reopened.


Barack Obama is not alone in his new dissatisfaction with his own new strategy. A cadre of top-ranking Democrats has also abruptly adopted a new line. Senator Carl Levin has suggested that no more U.S. troops be sent to Afghanistan until a significant number of Afghan troops be trained. Representative John Murtha has gone on record as being “very nervous” about sending more troops, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has cautioned, “Let’s just take it easy.”

Senator John Kerry put it plainly in his opening statement at a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which he chairs. “Nearly all of us agree that it was right to go into Afghanistan,” he said. “There is no such consensus about what comes next. The eighth anniversary of our presence in Afghanistan approaches at a time of growing doubts about our mission—at home and abroad.”

Kerry framed his statement in terms of the future: “The future course of our mission in Afghanistan has become one of the most important and difficult questions we face.” But Kerry, Obama, and other newly stumped Democrats must answer two important and difficult questions that dredge up the past:

Why, precisely, were they so eager to amplify things in Afghanistan in the first place?
And why are they so much less enthusiastic now?


Perhaps Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi got nearest the crux of the issue when she told reporters in September, “I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress” [emphasis added]. She is certainly right about that. According to a national CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll conducted in September, “support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time low.” Thirty-nine percent of Americans are in favor of the war, while 58 percent oppose it. This represents a 14-point drop in support since April. Most telling is the partisan breakdown of public opinion. Republican support for the war is at 62 percent, independent support at 39 percent; and Democratic support at 23 percent.

In American political theater, some policy changes are called craven “flip-flops” when they are in fact informed modifications or principled refutations of previously held positions. But the turn en masseon the part of leading Democrats on Afghanistan—from staunchly supporting American military victory in Afghanistan to being inconvenienced by the very prospect of it—is not such an instance.

So let us do as the president does and reflect on the past. On October 7, 2001, the United States initiated the war in Afghanistan. One month later, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 89 percent of Americans supported the war. While warnings about the “graveyard of empires” and, inevitably, “another Vietnam” could be heard from quarters on the Left even before the war officially started, congressional Democrats were overwhelmingly supportive. The Authorization of Use of Military Force joint resolution passed 420-1 three days after the September 11 attacks. The resolution “authorize[d] the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or those who harbored such organizations or persons.” The Taliban regime in Afghanistan certainly fit the bill.

In the early part of the war, as American forces swiftly deposed the Taliban and incurred minimal American casualties, the extraordinary level of public support did not waver. The apparent military success, and the corresponding public approval, was undoubtedly factored into calculations when the resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq passed weeks ahead of midterm elections, with a majority of Democratic senators saying aye.

That vote, too, would initially find favor among the American people. An ABC News poll taken approximately a month after the beginning of the Iraq war found that 70 percent of the population believed the war worth fighting, with 27 percent opposed. But soon after the remarkably successful toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a deadly and determined Iraqi insurgency found military planners unprepared. As the American death toll rose, American support for the war plummeted. On February 4, 2004, the same pollsters found that, for the first time, a majority (52 percent) of Americans did not think the Iraq war worth fighting.

Prominent Democrats who had voted in favor of war in Iraq began to flee from their earlier positions. But in order to maintain their military bona fides in an election year while excoriating a wartime administration for prosecuting a war they themselves had voted for, Democrats began to frame the Afghanistan war as the only legitimate, all-important post-9/11 conflict. Democratic candidate Kerry’s campaign rhetoric led the way with a sports metaphor. “They have taken their eye off the real ball,” Kerry said. “They took it off in Afghanistan and shifted it to Iraq.”

Soon Kerry’s “ball” was making the rounds of his party’s leaders and pooh-bahs. “The president has taken his eye off the ball in Afghanistan,” said his one-time rival Howard Dean. Then Senator Joseph Biden added a victimized twist: “This administration took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted our attention and resources to Iraq.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Americans had become less safe “when we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan after having made so much out of the need to capture Osama bin Laden.”

Afghanistan, said the Democrats, was where the real enemy was. It had a trustworthy leader in Hamid Karzai, and there was a genuine coalition of nations fighting by our side. Never mind that American forces were routinely engaging al-Qaeda members in Iraq, where some had been hiding out since before the U.S. invasion, while al-Qaeda networks in Afghanistan were being broken up or migrating to Pakistan. Never mind that the election of Karzai in 2002 had been made possible by the very American effort that Democrats were now calling a forgotten afterthought. And never mind that in terms of actual fighting allies, we had almost the identical coalition in Iraq that we had in Afghanistan. Add to those mitigating factors the uniquely inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan’s parched mountains, the country’s barely existing infrastructure, want of a functioning port, and a population structured around ancient tribal ties, and it is nothing short of astonishing that the U.S. had managed to set up the beginnings of an Afghan parliamentary democracy in a couple of years. None of those considerations made it into Democratic talking points from 2004 onward.

President Obama’s presentation in March 2009 was, therefore, the culmination of a years-long campaign that gave artificial weight to the Afghanistan war relative to the war in Iraq. Obama, like Kerry before him, ran for president largely on a pledge to end the bad war and refocus American military efforts on the good war. In 2008, the American public went for it. But because the dichotomy between the two wars had always been artificial, and because it had been established under dated conditions, the Democrats had an insufficient understanding of what had actually transpired in Afghanistan. For by the time Obama offered his “comprehensive strategy” in March, things in the good war had in fact become very bad.

This had little to do with Iraq and everything to do with errors in strategy and force allocation within the Afghan theater. Troops had become bogged down in spectacular, but secondary, battles while key Taliban- and al-Qaeda-related groups made important strides in the fight against coalition forces.

What was important from the standpoint of fulfilling Obama’s campaign rhetoric was that Afghanistan get its moment in the spotlight. And that is exactly what the president accomplished in March. He made a lengthy speech about how the war there had been neglected in favor of Iraq, peppered his discussion with allusions to human rights and responsible governance, okayed a troop allocation “to make sure that we could secure the election,” appointed a visionary commander from the bad war to handle the good war. And then, until September, he never talked about Afghanistan in public again. It is far from clear how much talking he has done about Afghanistan in private, either. From the day that McChrystal took command of American and NATO forces in what Obama called the “central front in the war on terror” to the time of this writing, the commander in chief had spoken with the commander of the armed forces in Afghanistan exactly once.

After the president graced Afghanistan with his rhetoric in March and then moved on to other matters, something happened that apparently surprised him and his fellow Democrats: McChrystal did his job. He made a comprehensive assessment of the war and sent it to the White House. And as details of a large troop request began to leak, the Democrats panicked. McChrystal’s is a truth that the president is, for the moment, literally unwilling to face.

This is because Obama’s “comprehensive strategy” was never a strategy at all. On September 26, the New York Times reported that “even some [of the president’s] advisers said they thought Mr. Obama’s support for the war as a senator and presidential candidate was at least partly a way of contrasting it with what he saw as a reckless war in Iraq.” With news of a real crisis in Afghanistan, the American public has soured on the war, and the Democrats are facing the operational challenges they never gave George W. Bush credit for juggling. They also face an unwelcome realization: you often have to do unpopular things to win wars. In this case, that means implementing an actual strategy that requires tens of thousands of new troops.


Despite the public unease, turning Afghanistan into a second “bad war” (as the first one, in Iraq, has wound up too successful for them to acknowledge) presents a formidable intellectual challenge for the Democrats. For starters, they have been asserting their hawkish credentials for years by invoking their tough-guy talk on Afghanistan. Now they are in a bind, for while Vice President Biden and George F. Will, among others, have asserted that the “ball” has now bounced into Pakistani territory, where al-Qaeda’s leaders apparently reside, neither they nor anyone else is seriously suggesting that keeping our eyes on it requires us to launch a new war in the country across Afghanistan’s eastern border. Instead, the notion that America should only pursue those people, rather than completing the mission it began in Afghanistan eight years ago, is little more than a cover for retreat.

It’s not just that the “good war” advocates don’t have the arguments to support retreat; they don’t have the scapegoats either. Where can they turn to find a villain now that George W. Bush and the Republicans are gone? The man who made the argument for the necessity of a turnaround in Afghanistan is their own revered leader. And making the claim that failure in Afghanistan is due to ongoing mistakes in Iraq, where a successful turnaround has already been effected, cannot be advanced very far without becoming tangled up in its own internal contradictions.

Thus, without an easy narrative or the right cast of characters, the appeal of retreat looks far different this time around. It must be couched in the language of contemplation and pragmatism without any of the moral outrage that backed up the calls for departing Iraq in 2004 and afterward. John Kerry seemed to be channeling Oprah in a recent rumination in the Wall Street Journal:

It may be that Gen. McChrystal has provided the road map to victory. Or it may be that some other strategy would work better, with fewer risks. We can’t know until we test every assumption and examine every option. At the end of the day, we need to answer every question to the best of our ability.

To be sure, Kerry was less diplomatic about the American president’s interest in strategic reassessment for Afghanistan a few years back. Here is what he had to say in 2006:

You could get whiplash watching the Administration policy on Afghanistan change from day to day. . . . Just yesterday the Administration refused to heed its own warnings and refused to send the troops the commanders on the ground said we needed. That is both a tragedy and a scandal.

Today, too, there is scandal—the scandalous display of shallow and hypocritical vacillation on the part of Democratic leaders in regard to America at war. Tragedy, however, can still be averted. If Barack Obama actually makes good on his campaign pledge, America can win her second war against the forces that attacked us eight years ago, and the spinelessness of those who promulgated a theory of the “good war”—advanced only as a stick with which to beat up political rivals—will be little remembered.
But if such vacillations prove partly responsible for overriding the recommendations of the general charged with securing that victory, and thereby contribute to an eventual American defeat, they will discredit the party from which they emanated on matters of foreign policy and defense for a generation.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.

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