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Making Sense of Our Trajectory in Afghanistan: Does Economy Supersede Strategy?

Friday, July 8, 2011

  Last Thursday, I attended a panel on the War in Afghanistan featuring John McCain, Joe Lieberman, former General Jack Keane, and moderated by Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institute. The event, hosted by the Institute for the Study of War and located in the Newseum event room, offered unique insights into the perspectives of the war from major players in the arena of national security. In general, the panelists held a view that was favorable of the War in Afghanistan and its prospects, while criticizing Obama’s announcement of a full withdrawal by 2014. Their support for the war, however, was in conjunction with a largely dismissive views of the impacts that extending it would have upon the finances and economy of the country.

In support of the war, the panelists pointed to a number of issues and facts that reflect favorably on the effort. For one, all panelists pointed to the success of the latest troop surge. While not as large as initially desired, the surge has done well in fighting and stabilizing previously stubborn regions. Likewise, the panelists pointed to the quality to the troops, noting the numerous tours many troops have undertaken combined with the excitement the troops have about fighting now that they are winning. To pull out according to Obama timeline would put them in harm’s way and make completing the mission harder.They do not disagree that the area could be stable by 2014, just incredibly difficult with Obama’s plans for troop withdrawal, which they asserted are not in line with any military strategy.

Despite the panelists strategic points regarding the war, they failed to address the main reason for the withdrawal: America is tired of war and paying for war. While McCain did note there was a “war weariness” felt by the American people, he never had actually addressed what to do about it. He simply pointed it out, then returned to advocating against Obama’s plan. In doing so, he failed to consider the current political climate. The country simply does not want to pay billions per week for a war that seems largely redundant after the death of Osama bin Laden and given the economic strife at home.

Given unlimited funds, troops, and public patience, Obama would not put a deadline on removing troops form Afghanistan. The troops would simply remain there until the job is completed and then leave when appropriate. Unfortunately, to think in this way is to ignore that there are other factors that Obama took into consideration. In the scheme of national interests, Obama saw saving money and returning troops as more important than a continued, open-ended struggle in Afghanistan. To say one is right and the other is wrong is really only saying that McCain and Obama have different views of what constitutes a key national interest. To argue along these lines becomes a matter of personal beliefs and viewpoints. However, to do so without considering all factors and pressure involved in the decision-making process weakens one’s position substantially, and is something McCain, Lieberman, and Keane are guilty of when asserting the war should not have a timeline.