With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.
The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.
Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.
The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).
Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.
Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.
These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.
General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.