President Obama effectively clutched the war in Afghanistan to his bosom during his battle to become President. He had to really, having opposed America’s adventure in Iraq he was at risk of being perceived as ‘soft’ on international interventions. As an electoral strategy his support for the Afghan mission worked but, like so many politicians’ promises, it would seem that his enthusiasm waned once power was within his grasp.
As my colleague Jonathan Birdwell has blogged, Obama finds himself in the uncomfortable, but surely not unexpected, position of having to make an actual decision abut how to proceed in Afghanistan. He is clearly finding this difficult. For a while it looked as though he might reject the proposed troop surge altogether – and opt instead for an effective withdrawal. Whilst that would have been wholly irresponsible, to both the Afghan people and to the memory of the soldiers who have died there, it would, at least, have been a policy.
Instead of either withdrawing or throwing the full weight of the US military behind the mission, President Obama appears to have opted for a half-way house. He will reconsider options for increasing numbers but only if any such plans include proposals for a swift exit. This is, apparently, necessary in order to ensure that the costs of engagement are kept to a minimum.
On the face of it this middle way might seem sensible. An exit strategy is needed if we are ever to extricate ourselves. But the problem is that we already had an exit strategy for Afghanistan, and Obama’s insistence on revising it is worrying both for the prospects of the war on terror and, arguably more importantly, for the prospects of the Afghan people. The Allies used to argue that we would leave Afghanistan ‘when the job is done’; our exit strategy was, quite simply, victory. Planning an alternative to this is not simply about developing a halfway house – it’s about half-hearted commitment to our strategic goals. We are in Afghanistan to neutralise terrorism and to help to shape a more secure and democratic state, in which terrorism and fanaticism are not housed, supported or enabled. Giving up now, or setting an arbitrary date in the near-future when we will give up, will not make America, Britain or Afghanistan more secure. At best it would return us to the appalling status-quo that we were there to change; at worst it would leave us less secure and faced with a failed state with renewed grievance at the manner in which we have abandoned them.
Obama presented himself to the American people as an idealist – and he won the election with a message of hope. He needs to live up to this promise in foreign policy with as much vigor as he has domestically; he was right, during the election, when he said that this was an important war to win – he would still be right if he acknowledged that now.