George Will has a provocative article in this morning’s Washington Post in which he says it is time to get out of Afghanistan. The article is a response to the arrival in Washington of a report from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, sent to Afghanistan by President Obama to assess the situation and make recommendations. McChrystal’s report says that the Taliban is stronger and more resilient than previously believed but that the war can still be won. The report call for the dispatch of more troops.
While McChrystal believes a counter-insurgency strategy, combined with nation-building, similar to that adopted in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, is the key to success in Afghanistan. Mr. Will asks: What can success mean? If the goal is to prevent a failed state from becoming again a training ground for terrorists, then surely we must go into Somalia too. And, he views the task of nation-building in this remote country where empires break as a fools’ errand. He quotes a Dutch commander to the effect that traveling through the region is "like walking through the Old Testament." The government is Afghan President Hamid Karzai is notoriously corrupt and an unfit vehicle for reform. Better to just walk away.
George Will harkens back to the isolationism of the Republican Party before Sen. Arthur Vandenberg agreed with Sen. Harry Truman that America needed to contain the expansionism of the Soviet Union and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower defeated Sen. Robert Taft for the Republican nomination in 1952. If a problem abroad appears historically insoluble, why should we try and solve it? Do we Americans have the will to see such a long-term commitment through to success? Will brings up the analogy of Vietnam and wonders if "our Afghans" will be anymore effective than "our Vietnamese" were in prosecuting their own war in favor of our interests. Better to stay home.
These are all fair questions, but Will neglects the manner in which Americans of both political parties did, in fact, work year-in and year-out to contain the Soviet Union. That war was usually cold, not hot, so popular opposition only manifested itself when the war turned hot and the casualties mounted in Korea and Vietnam. Certainly, the White House and the Pentagon are well advised to view the Taliban as a problem to be contained and to adopt efforts that keep the war as cold as possible.
The oddest thing about George Will’s column is the timing. The questions he raises could all have been raised last year or the year before. Will knows that in terms of domestic politics, the worst thing President Obama could do is to pull out of Afghanistan abruptly. He would appear weak. And, if a terrorist blew up a tree with a Molotov cocktail, Will’s rightwing buddies would be denouncing the President for failing to keep America safe. So, read Will’s column and let it provoke you to consider the complexity of our task in Afghanistan. But, that task remains worth pursuing until we see more in the way of failure than we have.