As the 2014 promised departure from Afghanistan draws nearer, popular support for the war is dwindling, and not only in the United States. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière recently complained, in a moment of stunning candor for a prominent politician, “that much of the rejection of the Afghanistan campaign in parts of the [German] population is due to the fact that people have the feeling that they have not been told the truth.” A painful gap stretches between the violence of the war and the vacuity of political rhetoric.
In 2008 candidate Obama waged his presidential campaign with the claim that the Bush administration had ignored the Afghan front in order to pursue the wrong war in Iraq. Yet President Obama never explained why Afghanistan was the right war to win. At best, he suggested that winning only involved minimalist goals—killing bin Laden or destabilizing al-Qaeda but never defeating the Taliban and certainly not the maximalist goal: establishing a stable, pro-American regime.
The US has succeeded in accomplishing only the narrowest war goal, and the cost of that raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbotobad has been high in terms of the deterioration of relations with Islamabad. As the administration joins in the frantic rush to the exits—leaving behind an emboldened Taliban, a fragmented Afghani political landscape, and Pakistan teetering on the edge of instability—the Bush era benign neglect of Kabul in order to focus on Baghdad increasingly looks like the more rational policy choice. Instead, Obama has chosen to retreat from both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Can the US win in Afghanistan? Not with this administration’s policy to shrink the US presence in global affairs, especially in the Middle East. The President was slow to support the democracy movement in Iran and made no effort to find a better outcome in Iraq. The administration did little in Libya, and it stands by impassively as thousands are annihilated in Syria. One killing in Florida moved the President more than mass slaughter in Homs. While the earlier “surge” in Afghanistan put victory in sight, the President’s heart was never in it, which is why he could reverse himself so quickly.
However, pulling out of Afghanistan helps achieve two other administration goals. Regional instability will inevitably contribute to an upward pressure on global oil prices. Expensive gasoline makes alternative energy sources less unattractive, consistent with the administration’s environmentalism. The intentional pursuit of high gas prices domestically will benefit from the disruptions in the Middle East oil production that will ensue from regional destabilization. The defeat in Afghanistan will have a green lining.
The Obama retreat also leaves a vacuum that a resurgent Russia will fill. Syria has been off limits to the US because Assad turned out to be a Kremlin client, just as Iranian nuclear progress depends on Russian support. Obama’s assurance to Medvedev that he will show “more flexibility” after the election has understandably elicited anxieties in Warsaw. Obama signaled his intent to roll back US presence overseas, after November, once the messiness of electoral politics is behind him: Putin can understand that problem. The exit from Afghanistan, like the willingness to compromise on the European missile shield, cedes ground to Russian influence spheres, the price of the notorious “reset” of relations with Moscow.
Losing Afghanistan is part of a strategy of retreat. Despite the bravery and accomplishments of the troops, this political leadership resents any assertive American foreign policy. It embraces neither the idealism of spreading democracy nor the realism of US global interests. It can’t provide public explanations of war goals in which it does not believe. A different administration might do better.
Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution