On the Surge to the Exits (To the President's Right on Afghanistan #5)

Anyone who’s been interested in American military adventures and misadventures over the last couple of decades has probably seen Anthony Cordesman on TV at some point offering his highly professional, well-researched, crisply presented, carefully hedged, and almost invariably pessimistic assessments on whatever invasion, intervention, expedition, arms negotiation, or other military matter happens to be in question.

Now on the inside looking out, as an adviser on the Afghan surge, Cordesman can be found turning his customary skepticism on the skeptics, as in the following video (especially after the midway point ca. 2:30):

If Cordesman weren’t on the inside, I suspect he’d be sounding a lot more like the Anthony Cordesman who gave the Iraq surge a “less than even” chance of success, or like the Anthony Cordesman who has consistently downgraded any prospects for Israeli action against Iran. Over the years, such Cordesman assessments, though hedged and guarded on their own terms, have frequently been seized upon by anti-war activists, pundits, and politicians, and I tend to believe that the same pattern would be repeating itself if he was again on the outside looking in.

I think Cordesman would in fact be sounding more like the British military historian Max Hastings, whose nuanced take on the Afghanistan enterprise – “Obama’s Afghan Surge Is Not About Winning the War, but Managing Our Looming Failure” – falls squarely within the pessimist camp, though with decidedly more understanding and sympathy for the President and his predicament than shown by American critics like George Will, Andy McCarthy, or Ralph Peters. At the same time, it’s not far from the worst-case/acceptable trade-off position implicitly acknowledged, but rarely advertised, by those who hold out greater hope for eventual success, but remain aware of significant obstacles between where we are and some final victory – with the uncertain, ever-receding, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder quality of unconventional “victories” not least among those obstacles.

Before going any further, it’s worth noting that, in addition to being a historian (his books on World War II are humane, balanced, very well-written, and greatly rewarding), Hastings himself has his own history. Like Cordesman, but even more so, he was a convinced pessimist on the the Iraq surge. In April 2007 he summed up his views as follows:

At the end of my own spasm of soul-searching, I cannot quit my place among the gloom-mongers. It is hard to believe that, whatever tactical military successes Petraeus’s people are achieving – and these are real enough – Iraq’s leaders, security forces and citizens can take the strain in real time. We still look like losing.

Yet this should never become cause for exultation, even among the bitterest foes of the Washington neocons. If defeat, chaos, regional war indeed come to pass, the Iraqi people and the security interests of the west will suffer a disaster for which the disgrace of George Bush and Tony Blair will represent wholly inadequate compensation.

On one level Hastings’ current view on Afghanistan seems to reprise the same theme – essentially that the whole thing can’t work because the locals are key, and just aren’t up to it:

[I]t seems highly unlikely that the West can achieve its purposes unless – a huge ‘unless’ – the Karzai government dramatically raises its game. It must get the bulk of the Afghan population on side, as today it certainly is not.

Our soldiers can play three quarters of an hour each way against Taliban forces week after week , and win every time. But none of it means a thing ‘unless’, in the phrase of an American officer of my acquaintance, ‘there is something to join up to’ – a viable Afghan administration.

Hastings’ contacts and his analysis lead him to what becomes a critical judgment, one that he believes the Obama Administration must share: “I do not believe President Hamid Karzai and his cohorts in Kabul are capable of getting their act together.”

Similar arguments – skepticism about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his notoriously corrupt, ineffective government – were also at the nub of Cordesman’s skepticism on the Iraq surge. Still, though Hastings might merely be repeating past errors – again “taking counsel from his fears,” as General David Petraeus, paraphrasing Andrew Jackson, might put it – there’s at least one good reason to wonder if he might be right this time: The people designing and implementing this policy include more people like him, including our current Decider, and fewer like our last one, who, we should recall, was in the minority in his own war-focused administration.

In short, there was every reason to believe, even prior to the President’s announcement, that the people on the inside had gloomy constitutions somewhat like Max Hastings’. For that reason, when Hastings suggests that Obama’s real intention is “to establish a framework for withdrawal,” the fact that Hastings himself probably thinks that’s the best policy may lend extra credence to his observation. This notion would also explain the peculiar and somewhat confusing and contradictory two-step that we all watched Obama perform last week before the West Point cadets and the world – the announcement of an escalation joined to the announcement of a withdrawal date.

Those who accuse Obama of a failure in war leadership, of sounding an uncertain trumpet, of committing a blunder vis-a-vis friendly and enemy morale, may simply be failing to recognize in which direction he is leading. For numerous reasons, according to this view, withdrawal is the overarching goal, but an immediate retreat (or even non-escalation), though it would be a lot easier to sell to the isolationist right and the anti-war left, remains politically and militarily impossible. As a total reversal of an oft-repeated and long held position, one reiterated in March 2009, anything but escalation would be devastating to Obama’s political credibility. It would be as or more destructive to overall American and allied credibility, and might cause an earthquake in the region, especially in Pakistan. Instead, the President is, in Hastings’ view, executing what amounts to a strategic feint, giving cover to a more drawn-out retreat. At the same time, he mollifies, or at least splits, the war hawks – and even gives the generals a chance, however small, of surprising him.

After making some useful comparisons to France, under de Gaulle, escalating in and then quitting Algeria 50 years ago, Hastings sums up the strategic package as follows:

If all this sounds confusing, so it is. It is a dangerous game – being played for the highest stakes – for national leaders to act in one way while really intending something else.

The soldiers think they know what they are doing – using extra men to secure key areas of Afghanistan. But almost everybody else is looking towards the exit.

The danger that flows from this approach, and that Hastings doesn’t address except by referring in passing to the “delicacy” of the game, is, of course, that such pessimism may decrease whatever chances there are of final success – durable, Jihadist-suppressing state power in Afghanistan and Pakistan – that, even before any facts on the ground are re-assessed, the underlying lack of conviction may be too readily apparent to the most important observers: those who are doing the fighting, including the ones supposed to think the wrong thing about “what they are doing,” as well as their immediate adversaries and those in the middle making life-or-death bets on the eventual outcome. In the meantime, the general public is left with a queasy, uncertain feeling – a sense that they’re being pushed along down an uncertain path, perhaps suspecting rightly that they’re being lied to – misled or mis-led, or both.

If Hastings is right, in addition to creating a framework for leaving – after a “decent interval” – Obama may also be laying a trail back to his own lack of leadership. Many in the military and to Obama’s right on the war, especially those who believe that victory is possible and necessary, and least of all those expected to risk all, would not appreciate being used – sacrificed – on the altar of “a dangerous game.” General David Petraeus on Fox News Sunday today (video not yet available) did not sound like a man pulling a fast one, or like an officer interested in capping off his resume with an epochal setback and betrayal.

The Commander-in-Chief may perceive the inevitability of failure, and for good and bad reasons feel unable to say so openly, but, if that’s our predicament, the political gap between “managing failure” and “failed management” may not be very wide. As Robert Kagan has pointed out, come the magic month of July 2011, Americans may remain as reluctant to accept defeat as ever. Kagan, contrary to Hastings, anticipates a further refusal to accept failure, under whatever management. If, however, at that time or later, worse comes to worst, the President’s opponents, including his allies of current convenience, will surely argue that his lack of determination and vision sabotaged the project, and will seek to hang any perception of failure on him and his party.

It may not be fair in all senses, but, given the President’s past political exploitation of Afghanistan’s complexities and his current insistence on telegraphing his intentions to the enemy, it may still stand as fair play.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

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