It’s been more than two weeks since President Obama announced that a decision on courses of action in Afghanistan would be made “in the coming weeks.” Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said a decision would wait until “sometime after the Afghan election is finally resolved.” Given the fluid nature of Afghan politics, it’s hard to say what “finally resolved” means. We doubt it will be anytime soon.
The Taliban are not waiting for Mr. Obama’s decision. Their suicide attack on the U.N. guesthouse in Kabul on Wednesday was reminiscent of the August 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that drove the mission from Iraq. The Taliban are seeking to conduct high-profile, potentially game-changing attacks that will influence thinking in Washington.
The decision-making void on Afghanistan has been filled by a cacophony of voices offering every possible option. Ramp up, pull out. More troops, fewer troops. Guard the cities, secure the countryside. Fight the Taliban, buy them off. Eliminate drugs, ignore narcotics. Dump Afghan President Hamid Karzai, stick with the devil you know. Pakistan is key. Send in the drones. The conventional wisdom is settling on reports of a scaled-down strategy to protect Afghan cities and infrastructure, which is uncomfortably resonant of the losing strategy the Soviet Union pursued in the 1980s.
Into the mix landed a four-page letter written by Matthew P. Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain and senior State Department official in Taliban-heavy Zabul province. Mr. Hoh is being billed as the first State Department official to resign in protest over the war, though in fact, he is only the first to decide to make a public splash by resigning.
Mr. Hoh parrots some basic counterinsurgency facts, such as the claim that the presence of foreign troops can itself motivate Afghans to fight. Hence, troop buildups can actually decrease security. Beyond that, he offers little. His logic is confused. He maintains that because al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan (a highly debatable premise), stabilizing the Afghan government will not defeat terrorism. But he fails to consider the consequences of a destabilized Afghanistan, which under Taliban patronage became a globally networked threat. A stable Afghanistan is not sufficient to defeat al Qaeda, but it is necessary to prevent its return.
Mr. Hoh’s simplistic view of the Vietnam War is galling. He repeats the mantra of the communists being nationalists whom we “arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology.” By “our own Cold War ideology,” we surmise Mr. Hoh is referring to freedom, and the fact that Vietnam remains a communist dictatorship should by itself settle the argument over the nature of that struggle.
Other passages are poorly thought-out talking points, such as his claim that “we are mortgaging our nation’s economy on a war.” In May, the Pentagon requested $65 billion for Afghanistan, which pales in comparison to the $787 billion stimulus package and the trillions of dollars of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) commitments. If anything, we have mortgaged our nation’s economy on bad mortgages.
Mr. Hoh’s letter reads like critiques of the Iraq war in 2006 or early 2007. Yet President George W. Bush, working with his commanding generals, formulated and implemented a winning strategy. The same can happen in Afghanistan if the current president demonstrates the same kind of leadership.