Mission creep

Obama should not let the fight in Afghanistan drift into an open-ended commitment to mend failed states everywhere

Afghanistan used to be a simple narrative: We’re going after the bad guys. It had a mission that could be summed up in two words: happy hunting. There was a simple exit strategy: Put Osama Bin Laden’s head on a pike, light up cigars, and slap each other on the back as we saunter off to the C-130’s and fly home.

After working my way through the McChrystal report on Afghanistan, an hour-long read describing the ruthless insurgency that has developed in that country and the general’s plan to combat it, I find myself pining nostalgically for those earlier days when I felt confident, at least on a superficial level, of what we were doing and why we were over there.

For all the tut-tutting from politicos over the general releasing his report to the public, McChrystal is really only stating the obvious. Hunting terrorists requires a lot more than just some 18-year olds and remote control planes. All the munitions in the world aren’t going to kill Osama Bin Laden or win a counter-insurgency unless you have the human intelligence, provided by Afghan locals, to let you know where to drop your bombs. And if you want an Afghan farmer to point out the spider hole where the bad guys are hiding, you need to give him something in return. Number one, far and away, says McChrystal, is security. The farmer isn’t going to give you anything if it means the very next day his daughters end up as compost for an insurgent poppy field. Therefore U.S. troops need to get outside of their walled forts and patrol among the people.

Of course, security is not the whole of the matter. Second on the list, the farmer wants economic opportunity and government that works. That means development, popular enfranchisement, combating corruption, and building political institutions that promote a just society. So not only is it a matter of more troops in the streets, it’s getting the Afghan government to reform to the point where its citizens respect its legitimacy and feel obliged to aid it.

Read far enough into the McChrystal report, and it becomes clear that the general’s plan for winning the war involves turning a failed state into a functioning state, the salient feature of which is a proactive and uncorrupt security force. This would already be a tall order (for which the general makes no guarantees of success) were the advice limited to Afghanistan.

But if one concludes, as McChrystal implicitly does, that American strategic interests are best served by mending a failed state, then why not extend the same level of resources that are being expended in Afghanistan to other failed states and regions, such as southern Yemen, Somalia, or tribal Pakistan? Each of these areas is an incubator of international terrorism — why should we have boots on the ground in one country but not another? For now, Obama has shrugged off such proposals by saying that it is more effective to “work with international partners.” But it remains unclear what metric the president is using to decide that international partnering (whatever that entails) makes greater sense than putting boots on the ground, and whether the president’s calculation is likely to change in the future.

The real danger is not that the president will make an active decision to deploy American troops in another failed state, but rather that he will drift toward that outcome over time without pausing to weigh the costs of such a policy. Blame it on Bush, or on the inherently complicated nature of counter-terrorism, but America stands today without a grand strategy for confronting terrorism. Are we seeking to actively roll back terrorists, to evict them from the territories they exert control over? Are we seeking to contain them, and wait until the proper application of American soft power or some other force causes terrorism to unravel by itself? Are we seeking to create a bunkered America, where we maintain our own security through careful border and port control, but resign places like Somalia to unchecked anarchy? Or is there no grand strategy, and everything is on a case-by-case basis, which begs us to ask, what are the factors we will use to differentiate between cases?

McChrystal is a military expert, not a crafter of grand strategies. Beyond executing the mission handed to him, his role is limited to explaining the options available and describing the trade-offs between them. In other words, he can tell us how much juice we can get for so much squeeze, but not whether the juice is worth the squeeze. His report on Afghanistan tells us that happy hunting on the cheap is neither effective nor sustainable, and that to secure the country, a better resourced, differently targeted effort is needed. We should trust his judgment. But we should not conclude that McChrystal’s recommendations constitute the ideal response to terrorism.

In short order, Obama needs to do two things: First, he needs to decide on a clear, concrete strategy for dealing with terrorism; his foreign policy on this subject must not become the global equivalent of whack-a-mole. And second, he needs to sell the “Obama Doctrine” to the general public. Presidents have a great deal of leeway in managing foreign policy, but the hallmark of a great statesman is in not playing his hand beyond what his public will support. If Obama believes that a broad new commitment is needed to combat terrorism, he needs to begin coaxing the American public towards that conclusion as soon as possible.

There are no easy choices, and Obama is likely to suffer some political fallout no matter what choice he makes. But however hard the choices are, the challenge of terrorism demands that a choice be made.