Is Afghanistan Still Winnable?

| Thu Jun. 17, 2010 5:02 PM EDT

Things are not going well in Afghanistan. But Spencer Ackerman argues that Obama's strategy is still the best bet out there:

The American public has never debated, in a rigorous and bloodless way, just how proportional it is to confront a network of a few thousand extremists — this was Petraeus’s estimate during an exchange with Sen. Graham this morning — through a commitment of something upwards of $300 billion to date and roughly 100,000 troops. The damage that extremist network can export is real. But it’s increasingly insubstantial. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the perpetrator of the most sophisticated al-Qaeda plot in years, had succeeded, he would have killed an order of magnitude fewer people than on 9/11 — 300 people. Out of a nation of 300 million. And that is ultimately how asymmetrical warfare succeeds: what bin Laden calls “Bleed to Bankruptcy.”

....If the choice is between Going Big and Doing Nothing, both favor al-Qaeda. But if the choice is to restrict al-Qaeda’s freedom of movement while combatting the strategic-depth network in Afghanistan; divesting ourselves of the responsibilities to secure Afghanistan; and bolstering the capabilities of our Afghan and Pakistani security-sector and governance-sector allies; then we’re getting somewhere. And these things are related: al-Qaeda would not be relying on the scrubs on the bench like Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad if they were not feeling pressure.

And this is why, ultimately, I do think the strategy in Afghanistan/Pakistan makes sense. It’s a near-optimal balance of risks and benefits within the boundaries of a finite commitment. That is: the surge represents the best chance of rolling back years of Taliban advances in Afghanistan while giving the Afghan government a chance to actually govern and building a durable security sector, so that after July 2011, the Taliban is just less relevant to people’s lives — and, across the border, supporting and encouraging the Pakistani military to perform similar operations to restrict the space in which al-Qaeda and its strategic-depth groups operate.

I think there's something missing here. It's perfectly reasonable to argue that we should have limited goals in Afghanistan and that those limited goals are worth fighting for. But you still have to address the fundamental question: can we achieve those goals? I assume Spencer thinks we can, but he doesn't really make a case for it.

Now, granted, this isn't something you can demonstrate conclusively one way or another. But at this point, after nine years in Afghanistan; after the failure of our newly retooled strategy in its first outing in Marjah; after learning that Hamid Karzai has essentially given up on us; and after hearing Gen. David Petraeus all but admit that he doesn't think he can meet the July 2011 deadline he originally agreed to — after all that, someone really needs to make a good case that we can do what Spencer wants to do: roll back the Taliban and "give the Afghan government a chance to actually govern and build a durable security sector." Because at this point, you'd have to be Pollyanna herself not to be awfully skeptical that we can do this at all, regardless of time or troop commitments. We can certainly contain the Taliban pretty much forever if we're willing to leave 50,000 troops in Afghanistan pretty much forever, but we all know we aren't willing to do that.

So can we do it? I really need to hear the case — and it better not rely on the fantasy that this is just like Iraq, and if a Petraeus surge worked there then it can work in Afghanistan too. That won't fly. Neither will a fantasy speech by Barack Obama. We need to hear something far more convincing. Because in the end, no matter how bad you think things might be if we exited Afghanistan, there's no point in staying if we simply don't have any reasonable chance of succeeding.

So can we? Someone convince me.