BOSTON – Late last year, shortly before he died, the president’s special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan told me to expect a “tremendous debate” in 2011 between those in the administration who wanted a “steep and deep” troop withdrawal and those who wanted any draw-down in Afghanistan to be “small and shallow.“
General David Petraeus, whom Holbrooke credited with great ability to “spin” his vision of events, would be wanting any troop reduction to be just as small and shallow as can be, while the president, and his national security staff, would prefer steep and deep.
That battle has now been joined.
“Steeper Pullout Raised as Option for Afghanistan,” headlined the New York Times, delineating the White House battle lines. “Military Seeks to Make Case Against Too-Hasty Reduction of Troops in Afghanistan,” came the rejoinder the next day. The ever battle–ready John McCain opined that we needed another season of fighting, and said he hoped troop reduction would not exceed 3,000.
An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Kimberly and Frederick Kagan was headlined: “We Have the Momentum in Afghanistan.” The article said that “we need every soldier we have,” but the Kagans would allow 5,000 troops to leave — 2,000 more than McCain. General Petraeus has not yet made his recommendation.
The military believes that if we just keep killing the Taliban, they will see it our way and throw in the towel. Alas, wars against the Pashtuns by the Russians for nine years and by the British for more than 100, suggest that Pashtuns cannot easily be beaten into submission.
Ambassador designate Ryan Crocker, at his confirmation hearing, quoted Jesus Christ in saying that we weren’t trying to build “a shining city on a hill," just “Afghanistan good enough.” Good enough seems to mean we want to leave behind a structure that can stand up without American troops.
The military’s thinking reminds me of General William Westmoreland’s belief that he could defeat the North Vietnamese in a war of attrition. But in the end the attrition worked against the United States, not the Vietnamese.
Support for the Afghan war is falling away in the United States. Late last month, an amendment to accelerate troop withdrawals in Afghanistan garnered 26 House Republicans who defied the GOP leadership. Our European allies are already heading out the door.
In a sense the death of Osama bin Laden hurt the military’s case because it allowed critics of the war to say, well, we went into Afghanistan to get bin Laden. Now that he’s gotten, can’t we start packing it in?
The death of bin Laden did not, and could not, end al Qaeda’s ambitions, and there will be others to take his place. But it does throw into focus that the war, which was indeed to get Al Qaeda, long ago morphed into a war against the Taliban, and is coming close to becoming a war against the Pashtuns. Of course not all Pashtuns support the Taliban, just as not all Vietnamese supported Ho Chi Minh, but enough of them do to make it easy for the Taliban to say they are the true Afghans, fighting foreign rule just the way Pashtuns have always done.
The U.S. military hopes that the Afghan army can be brought up to speed to replace foreign forces by 2014. Progress has been made, just the way there has been progress fighting the Taliban. But the question should not be: Are we making progress? The question is: How long and how much will it take before the Afghan National Army can stand up to the Taliban on its own? And for many, 2014 is a hopelessly optimistic date.
President Obama’s security team is about to change. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be gone by month’s end. Leon Penetta, who is scheduled to replace him, will relinquish the C.I.A. to Petreaus. The new national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, is on the side of steep and deep. It might be said of the new team that steep and deep is gaining on shallow and slow, although Petreaus can be counted upon to hold to his line at C.I.A.
I met General John Dempsey — who has just been made head of the joint chiefs of staff — in Baghdad some years ago. He was then in charge of training the Iraqi Army. He was interested in talking about Vietnam when our formal interview was finished. It came as a bit of a shock to me to realize that none of our generals was old enough to have served in Vietnam. To them it was history, and they were interested in the way they might be interested in General Grant’s campaign on the Mississippi.
Of Obama’s team only Holbrooke had had any kind of real responsibility during the Vietnam years, and it haunted him. He told me that he could see us making so many of the same mistakes as we had in South East Asia. He talked about Vietnam every chance he got, which turned off many in the Obama White House, including Obama. By the time Holbrooke died, although he was lionized in death, he had been completely marginalized. General Petraeus referred to Holbrooke as his “wing man,” which was no doubt meant as a compliment, but suggested an inferior position.
Steep and deep versus shallow and slow will continue to wrangle the administration in the coming weeks. You can count on one thing, however. President Obama will steer a middle course, giving neither side what it wants. Like other presidents, namely John Kennedy over Vietnam, Obama will put off any real decisions about Afghanistan for another day after the next general election.