US will declare victory and pull out
Published in Gulf News, 14 July 2010
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
The worrisome thing about America's current debate over Afghanistan is the degree to which it is beginning to sound like America's debate over Iraq five years ago. The conversation is not as bitter and emotionally charged - not yet, at least - but in rehashing the same arguments it leaves Washington in danger of making the same mistakes.
Broadly speaking, this debate places supporters and opponents of the Afghan war in two camps. On one side are those who argue that America cannot afford to "cut and run". Setting a date for withdrawal, they say, merely encourages the Taliban to lay low. Once the Americans are gone, their enemies will return in force and the work of a decade will have been for naught.
"If you put a hard deadline, then the bad guys are going to wait us out and the folks who you're hoping are going to assume power and responsibility are going to be afraid to make the tough decisions that they have to make," Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to George W. Bush, said on US television on Sunday.
The opposing view holds that announcing a departure date is essential if America and its allies hope to leave anything lasting in their wake. The western armies, in this calculation, have become a crutch — their presence allowing Afghan politicians the luxury of politicking and petty score-settling at a time when they ought to be concentrating on nation-building. This was a school of thought that had its adherents in Iraq as well.
One element of this debate has been refreshingly clear-eyed. Washington seems to harbour few illusions about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai — fewer, at least, than the Bush administration was ever willing to admit having about its various Iraqi clients.
Whatever differences one may have with US President Barack Obama and his approach to Afghanistan, we can at least be thankful that White House and Defence Department spokespeople are not trying to convince anyone that the Afghan president is Thomas Jefferson or George Washington in a brightly coloured cloak.
The bad news is that in working through these issues Washington still clings to the myth that it "fixed" Iraq with the troop surge of 2007-08 and that the surge, in turn, offers a model that can successfully be applied to Afghanistan.
Or, as Gillespie put it: "I would like to see the president actually be more firm in saying "we're going to stay and get the job done the same way we did in Iraq. It worked in Iraq. I think it would work in Afghanistan".
Whenever you hear an American politician or pundit putting forward that theory it is worth remembering that the Bush administration's surge policy had two parts to it.
The plan originally called for increased US military action to bring a degree of order to the country. Once this happened, the theory went, Iraq's political leaders would step into the fray, using the safe space created by American arms to demonstrate that they were capable of competently managing their own country. This, in turn, was supposed to demonstrate the merits of democracy to an Iraqi populace that, by 2007, could be forgiven for having doubts about the whole idea of representative government.
Three years later, American politicians constantly sing the surge's praises while rarely acknowledging that it was only the first — military — part of the policy that delivered as planned. The singular failure of Iraq's political class to rise to the occasion is hardly ever mentioned. Neither the political vacuum that has arisen in the wake of March's Iraqi elections, nor the increasing violence that has moved in to fill that void seems to interest America much these days.
In 1966 Republican Senator George Aiken advised an increasingly beleaguered president Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, that the solution to the quagmire of Vietnam was for America simply to "declare victory and go home".
Aiken is said to have acknowledged that the idea sounded a bit far-fetched, but to have added that nothing else, at that point, seemed to be working.
Forty-four years and several wars later it would appear that Obama is applying Aiken's advice to Iraq — a policy made easier by the fact that America's media now pay relatively little attention to what happens in Baghdad.
Which leads one to wonder how long it will be before the cycle repeats itself in Afghanistan. At what moment will Washington's ‘stay-the-course' and ‘set-a-date' factions find a common fiction that will allow them to disengage from what has now become the longest war in America's history?
Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.