Our slow-motion exit from Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.

As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).

But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.

What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.

Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.

As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.

John Moore/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Israel's not going to attack Iran -- yet

Having written a fair bit about the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of a war with Iran, I feel compelled to offer a brief comment on Ronan Bergman's alarmist article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. I say this even though I think the article was essentially worthless. It's a vivid and readable piece of reportage, but it doesn't provide readers with new or interesting information and it tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran.

First off, the article is essentially a reprise of Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 Atlantic Monthly article on the same subject. The research method is identical: a reporter interviews a lot of big-shots in the Israeli security establishment, writes down what they say, and concludes that that Israel is very likely to attack. Bergman doesn't present new evidence or arguments, pro or con; it's just an updated version of the same old story.

Second, the central flaw in this approach is that there is no way of knowing if the testimony of these various officials reflects their true beliefs or not. There are lots of obvious reasons why Israeli officials might want to exaggerate their willingness to use force against Iran, and this simple fact makes it unwise to take their testimony at face value. Maybe they really mean what they say. Or maybe they just want to keep Tehran off-balance Maybe they want to distract everyone from their continued expansion of West Bank settlements and other brutalities against Palestinians. Maybe they want to encourage Europe to support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, and they know that occasional saber-rattling helps makes sanctions look like an attractive alternative. Maybe it's several of these things at once, depending on who's talking. Who knows?

By the way, I'm not accusing the officials that Bergman interviewed of doing anything wrong. I don't expect top officials of any country to tell the truth all the time, and I'm neither surprised nor upset when foreign officials try to manipulate fears of war in order to advance what they see as their interests. My point is that it is impossible to tell if they mean what they are saying or not, which is why an article based on interviews of this kind just isn't very informative. They might be telling the truth, or they might be lying, and nobody knows for sure.

Lastly, as Gary Sick notes in an excellent post of his own, the Bergman piece ignores the considerable evidence suggesting that Iran is not in fact trying to build a nuclear weapon. Equally important are Sick's reminder that the IAEA still has lots of inspectors keeping a watchful eye on Iran's nuclear activities, and his observation that Israel cannot attack Iran without warning, because doing so would almost certainly kill a bunch of IAEA inspectors.

His conclusion (and mine): until Iran expels the inspectors or Israel warns them that it is time to leave, there isn't going to be a war. And if that is the case, then Bergman's scary essay is just another example of empty alarmism.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images