A Loss We Can Live With

The endgame in Afghanistan isn’t 2013 or 2014; it’s already happened. The only thing now is to make sure that the retreat is not a total disaster for those we leave behind.

"It was Leon being Leon." This is the take you get when you ask Obama administration officials exactly what it was that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meant when he said last week that the administration wanted to move troops in Afghanistan from "a combat role to a training, advise and assist role…hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013." Panetta, that is, was just blurting something out, as is his wont. The administration didn't so much walk back Panetta's remark as frog-march it. CIA director David Petraeus complained in congressional testimony that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed." White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that the Pentagon chief was speaking of what "could happen," not what had been decided. A senior NATO official told me that Panetta's comments should be understood in an "aspirational" light. And so on.

It's true that NATO's decision at the Lisbon Conference last year to turn over all combat operations to the Afghan army by the end of 2014 did not stipulate the pace of that transition; that was to be decided according to facts on the ground. The transition began last year when the Afghan military took the lead in several of the country's most peaceful provinces. And as Petraeus helpfully pointed out, if you're going to be done by the end of 2014, "Obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations." But Panetta announced that the transition would end (or perhaps that he hoped they would end) 12 to 18 months before the terminal date. Have the facts on the ground changed for the better? I asked an administration official privy to intelligence on Afghanistan if he had any reason to believe that the much-maligned Afghanistan National Security Force had made big gains in professionalism. "No," he said, flatly.

So what's going on? Nothing, possibly. But it's likely that the administration is sending a signal. The chief audience for that signal is the American public, which has had it up to here with the grandiose foreign ventures that Obama inherited from George W. Bush. This process began last June when Obama announced that "the tide of war is receding," and thus that he was accelerating the timetable for the withdrawal of troops. But politics matters too: In the aftermath of Panetta's statement, the White House made it clear that it would be delighted to pick a fight with the hawkish Mitt Romney on the subject.

Panetta was probably also signaling his own generals, who objected to the accelerated withdrawal last year and want to keep carrying the fight to the Taliban, including in the east, which NATO has largely vacated. Panetta appears to be telling his commanders: We are making the transition now. This policy swerve was almost eerily prefigured by "The Next Fight," a report issued last December by the Center for a New American Security. After extensive battlefield interviews, the authors wrote, "We are not confident that most U.S. and NATO commanders have come to grips with the reality of the impending U.S. and allied transition." (Not true, insists my NATO source: "We're pretty well synched up and we want to get that transition down.") Field commanders were taking the fight to the Taliban and leaving their Afghan counterparts to mop up afterwards, the report noted. Many Afghan units had no embedded U.S. or NATO advisors; few were remotely prepared to lead the fight in fiercely contested provinces like Helmand or Kandahar. This almost guaranteed that whatever gains the American military made would prove unsustainable. The report recommended an immediate change of mission from combat to "security force assistance."

That appears to be what Panetta was talking about, though in order to become formal policy the change would have to be endorsed at the NATO conference this May in Chicago. And it makes a great deal of sense: Commanders have to be prepared to sacrifice some tactical gains in order to prepare Afghan forces to take over at the end of 2014. But "makes sense" is very different from "will work." The premise of the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Obama agreed to adopt in 2009, at the urging of Petraeus, then the overall commander for the region, was that U.S. forces would clear out the Taliban from Afghan territory, train Afghan forces to take over, and help build a sufficiently effective government that would encourage the Afghan people to choose the state over the insurgents. That enterprise has largely failed, and since the White House knows very well that it has failed, officials cannot expect that even adequately trained Afghan forces will be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban. The "transition" is thus an exercise in kabuki as much as it is in counterinsurgency doctrine.

Leaks from two classified reports have confirmed what is already obvious. A January National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan drawn up by the CIA and other intelligence agencies concluded that the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government, along with the resilience of an insurgency sheltering across the border, could make it impossible for the Afghan state to survive on its own after U.S. and NATO support dwindles after 2014. And a NATO report based on the interrogation of some 4,000 Taliban prisoners asserted that Afghan security forces are collaborating extensively with the Taliban, and that Afghan civilians "frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government." (Critics have noted that Taliban prisoners may not be the most reliable sources.)

Still, senior military officials appear to be sincerely convinced that the battle is tipping towards the NATO alliance and away from the Taliban. Perhaps they'll be proved right; but based on current trends, the Taliban is all too likely to fill the vacuum created by the departure of U.S. and NATO forces. The best chance to avoid such a debacle is not a successful hand-off to the Afghan military but a successful negotiation which persuades the Taliban to lay down its arms in exchange for a significant role in the Afghan government. The White House is increasingly focused on that goal. The effort, based in Doha, is being led by Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But so far, Pakistan's intelligence service -- which, the NATO report noted, exercises almost total control over the Taliban -- has opposed the talks. Even Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has spurned the effort, preferring to conduct his own alleged negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The boys at Ladbrokes are probably laying long odds on this outcome, too.

And this brings us to the endgame of the endgame. Afghanistan is a relic -- though one that keeps reaching out from the crypt. We've already moved on. The Pentagon's "strategic guidance" issued last month stated that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" -- read, Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the United States will not be leaving the Middle East, it "will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region." Washington is pivoting from the Middle East to Asia, and from an immensely frustrating decade of regime change, occupation, nation-building, and counterinsurgency to a much more familiar and, dare we say, rational era of great-power deterrence. The president, and the American people, would like to see the back of Afghanistan.

And the harsh truth is that the West can afford to fail in Afghanistan. The real threat was al Qaeda; and al Qaeda forces in the region were seriously degraded even before the killing of Osama bin Laden. National security officials worry less than they used to that the Taliban would invite jihadists back into Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden, who has long argued that the threat was overblown, recently reiterated that, "The Taliban per se is not our enemy." At this point, the greatest threat that Afghanistan poses to the West is probably not a renascent al Qaeda but a civil war that would reduce the country to howling chaos. That's what a negotiated settlement would seek to avoid.

So, if all goes well, Afghanistan will be a mess, but not a mess that threatens U.S. national security. That turned out, in the end, to be the story of Vietnam. I would just say one thing, and I think it is something that anyone who has spent time in that woebegone country would feel: The Afghan people deserve better. We invaded their country and we raised their expectations. Perhaps we were wrong to do so; we couldn't make their government better than it was. But we have an obligation to do what we can -- not, chiefly, anymore with soldiers but with aid, trade, diplomacy, and all the other tools of American power. Let us not, in a fit of imperial forgetfulness, abandon Afghanistan as we execute our grateful pivot to Asia.

Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Cynics at the Gates

The world is more prepared to stop atrocities than ever before, but it is still unwilling -- or unable -- to actually bring those atrocities to an end.

Something big has happened in international diplomacy: The Arab League, a body which until just the other day defended the sovereignty of its members at all costs, is demanding that a skittish U.N. Security Council take forceful action to stop atrocities committed by Syria, one of its own members. The league's call last year for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya felt like an aberration, because Muammar al-Qaddafi had placed himself so far beyond the pale among his own neighbors. But Syria is a pillar of the organization, as central as France is to the EU. And so the spectacle of an Arab country -- Morocco -- introducing an Arab resolution to the Security Council earlier this week demanding that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad leave office was astonishing.

Arab authorship radically changes the politics surrounding the question of international action. Think, by contrast, of Darfur, where the United States and several European allies on the Security Council pushed resolutions threatening sanctions against Sudan for its campaign of mass killing and expulsion. Arab leaders defended their brother in Khartoum, President Omar al-Bashir, while the African Union repelled outside interference with its calls for "African solutions to African problems." Much the same happened in the face of international outrage against the regimes in Zimbabwe and Myanmar. The perpetrator's neighbors thus twist legitimate calls for action into a campaign of Western neo-colonialism, and reduce the universal principles behind norms like "the responsibility to protect" into a hobby-horse of Western elites.

China took the lead defending Sudan in the Security Council starting in 2004. Whatever pressure China had to ensure from Western governments and public opinion, it suffered no consequences at all in Africa, the Middle East, or throughout the developing world. And for years, Bashir was thus able to virtually dictate the terms of the international effort to stop his own killing spree, with a toothless peacekeeping force fielded by an overwhelmed and under-financed African Union. "African solutions to African problems" not only emboldened China, it also undermined the already shaky alliance seeking to stop Bashir. Who wants to stand up for a Western solution to Africa's problems? And so the United States, Britain, and others often proved quite willing to dump the problem in Africa's lap.

By all rights we should be in that place again, but somehow we're not. Russia, which is performing the same services for Syria that China did for Sudan, is negotiating not only with the Western powers but with representatives of Morocco, Qatar, and the Arab League. Russia can not disguise its support for Syria as anti-neo-colonialism (even though it also has the support of India, long-time stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement) The plain truth is that, just as China depended on Sudan as an oil supplier, Russia views Syria as a major client for its arms-export industry; and both China and Russia fear that any effort by the Security Council to stop atrocities could serve as a precedent for similar interventions in Chechnya, or Tibet. Moscow has hardly folded: by threatening a veto, it has already forced the resolution's backers to strip out any explicit reference to Assad's departure and has removed passages calling for an arms embargo and support for sanctions. But after blocking any Security Council action on Syria for months, Russia is now actively negotiating for language it can live with. Diplomats say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov may reach an agreement when they meet in Munich on Saturday.

The resolution, whatever form it takes, puts the Arab League in the lead. A senior State Department official I spoke to pointed out that -- while in the case of Libya the Arab League had, in effect, authorized the West to act on its behalf -- in the case of Syria it has asked the council to endorse an Arab bid to resolve the problem. "That's important," he said, "and it's new." It may be possible to speak of an "Arab solution to an Arab problem" without a cynical smirk.

The Arab League is not alone in its new spirit of activism: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), played a leading role in the campaign to depose Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Cote D'Ivoire, after he provoked a civil war rather than accept the results of an election he had lost. The heavy lifting in that operation was done by the U.N. and France; but, as in Libya, the regional body provided indispensable legitimacy for the international community. Sovereignty has begun to lose its magic even among the de-colonized nations which most zealously guard the principle. But Arab leaders also live in a new world. The Arab street has turned sharply against Assad; and the era when Arab leaders could afford to ignore public opinion is over. In that regard, the new tone of the Arab League is one of the early benefits of the Arab Spring.

Russia may choose to compromise rather than put itself on the wrong side of history. That would be encouraging. But, of course, a win for international diplomacy means nothing if Assad continues to kill unarmed civilians, or if Syria spirals into a yet more monstrous civil war. The resolution's backers hope that once Assad's supporters in the military and the business community see that they don't have to decide, as Assad insists they do, between murderous violence and utter chaos, but can instead choose what the resolution calls "an inclusive Syrian-led political process" to replace him, they will abandon the dictator. That's a plausible hypothesis. But if Assad concludes that he still has Russia in his corner -- along with China, Iran, and Hezbollah -- he may well believe that he can tough it out. And if Russia continues to deliver weaponry, he may retain the means to do so.

What then? The answer, alas, is: nothing. There has been a great deal of debate over the question of military intervention in Syria. An English think tank focused on Syria has even produced an assessment, mostly positive, of the case for establishing a "safe haven," like Benghazi in Libya, where civilians would be protected from attack and the opposition could safely organize. But it's not going to happen. Several months ago, French foreign minister Alain Juppe mooted the idea of a "humanitarian corridor," in which foreign troops would provide protection for aid agencies giving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Syria. But the idea got no support, and has since been dropped. One Western diplomat said to me, "Any possibility of military action is completely discarded, and considered as impossible." Could that change? One Obama administration official suggested that if Syrian troops were stupid enough to chase rebel soldiers across the border into Turkey, the Turks could not only answer with force but invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty requiring the organization to respond to an attack on a member. That is, he said, a very remote scenario. And even many NATO members would be reluctant to act without Security Council authorization, which Russia would never grant.

So the news is not all that good. The world is more prepared to act to stop atrocities than it was just a short while ago, but it is still unwilling, or perhaps unable, to actually bring those atrocities to an end. Russia and India are still prepared to make the grotesquely cynical argument that the events in Syria constitute a civil war between two sides equally at fault, rather than a murderous rampage which has, after long months, provoked some civilians to take up arms and some soldiers to defect. Advocates of forceful action still have more words than deeds at their disposal. Juppe admonished the Security Council earlier this week that its silence, in the face of Syria's "crimes against humanity," was "shameful." He repeated this word several times, lest anyone have failed to hear his outrage. But France has no Plan B to offer beyond what may turn out to be a fairly wan Security Council resolution. That does, actually, put one in mind of the debates over Darfur.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice. The arc is almost imperceptible. But I still believe it's bending that way.