Afghanistan is not that complicated, even if you’re a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The president has made a point recently of letting us see him and his war council at work on Afghanistan, which, according to the generals on the ground, is deteriorating fast and in need of urgent attention. But the truth is that figuring out what to do in Afghanistan is not really that hard.
The president has two sets of considerations: The political ones and the military ones. Politically, he’s almost bulletproof. In basketball language that he can understand, this one’s a lay-up. Whatever he does on Afghanistan—unless he waits too long to act—will work to his advantage. If on one hand, he decides to reject the request for another 45,000 more troops from General Stanley McChrystal, he reinforces his biggest asset with the American people, a huge majority of whom think that he is a decisive leader who is willing to make tough decisions.
According to a recent Gallup poll: “Of seven personal characteristics, Americans rate Barack Obama most highly for those that reflect on his leadership skills. Seventy-two percent say he "is willing to make hard decisions," and 66 percent describe him as "a strong and decisive leader." Sixty-four percent say he "can get things done."
Additionally, what the American people want most of all is to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It would not be hard for Obama to make the case that his decision to reject McChrystal’s advice is based on the long-term strategic goal of getting out of Afghanistan rather than getting stuck there. And since more Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan than favor it, it’s not a hard sell.
Let’s say that he makes what I think is the more politically calculated decision: He gives McChrystal all or some of what he wants. In doing so, he will get credit for not micromanaging the war from Washington—blunting some of the inevitable rancor that will come from conservatives. But from everything we know about Obama’s thinking, we have to assume that what the president wants to do is draw down in Afghanistan rather than build up. It seems to me that all the recent discussion has been about how to say that without looking too dismissive of McChrystal and the military.
On the military front, the calculations are more complicated and the decisions more difficult, but the bottom line cannot really be in doubt: We should be getting out because the tasks we have set for ourselves there are impossible ones to complete.
Whatever else the new military strategy involves, it will require a huge component of trying to legitimize the Karzai government, a ridiculous notion given the corruption, incompetence and complete loss of confidence among Afghans. They are all too aware of their government’s failure in protecting civilians from violence. Toss in the tainted recent re-election for Karzai and legitimacy is a pipe dream.
The irony of McChrystal’s request is that his new strategy aims to “correct” the notion that the U.S. is an occupying force, and he does this by asking for a greater show of force. If you want to change the perception that your army constitutes an occupying force, then there’s only one way to do that: Stop occupying and leave. Go. Get out. Now.
In 2004, Barack Obama once told me, as we were sitting in an old campaign office in Springfield, Ill., that Americans can sometimes be an “ahistorical people.” He clearly is not. So even if he ignores all the ridiculous chatter about Afghanistan turning into his Vietnam, he cannot be oblivious to the history of other Western powers who have tried to fix or tame Afghanistan in the past, each time with disastrous results. The Russians tried and failed 30 years ago; the British tried four times in the last 200 years and failed each time.
The president has given no indication when he will make a decision on Afghanistan. The White House is said to be examining the “options.” But now it’s up the new decider, who must decide soon. This one’s not that hard.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.