Meacham: We Shouldn't Withdraw From Afghanistan

The answer came quickly, and clearly. in may president Obama gave NEWSWEEK an interview on what he had learned in his first months in office. When asked what had been his most difficult decision, Obama answered without hesitation: the order to send 21,000 more American troops to Afghanistan in this, the eighth year of the war there. Later in the conversation, Obama said that the American people, broadly defined, understand and appreciate the complexity of many of the problems facing the country. The implication was straightforward: that he, with his professorial talent for explanation, was the man for a moment when America, or at least the chunk of it that had voted for him, was willing to hear him out, often at length.

I recalled these points of the president's last week during one of Washington's periodic outbreaks of attention to the war in Afghanistan. The occasion was the submission of a report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander there, which reportedly details a grim situation that will almost certainly require, in McChrystal's view, more American force. Obama's decision will be among the most important he will ever make.

John Barry, our longtime defense correspondent, reports McChrystal told colleagues in Washington that he was "shocked" by what he found after Obama gave him the command this spring. He should not have been: the war has now lasted longer than American combat engagement in World Wars I and II combined, and anyone reading the reports out of Afghanistan and Pakistan knows that the Taliban is reconstituting itself with support from sympathizers both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. It was also more than a little surprising to hear Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say last week that "time is not on our side" in Afghanistan. Time has never been on our side in that perennially chaotic country.

Ron Moreau, who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for us, puts it this way: "In short, I think we're finding ourselves confronting the same dilemma the Soviets faced in the late 1980s: either pour in more troops for a wider occupation, or opt for a withdrawal, phased or otherwise. The counterinsurgency plan is now completely a U.S. operation. Our forces clear and hold, largely on their own, and then try to build with a combination of U.S. civilian and military elements. The Afghans simply don't factor in, as they don't have the manpower or seemingly the will to take advantage of the opportunity provided by U.S. troops. Local Afghans, of course, quickly resent our widening footprint, as it leads to frequent Taliban attacks and the planting of mines and IEDs everywhere, not to mention the insurgents' use of indiscriminate suicide bombings. The U.S. gets blamed for these, not the Taliban. The logic: if the U.S. weren't there, the Taliban wouldn't be attacking. So if the Afghans can't step up, and so far they haven't and won't, then what's the point?" That is the question the president must answer.

The difficulty of our task in the region is virtually impossible to overstate. But we are at war there because the aid and comfort Afghanistan gave Al Qaeda made the attacks of September 11—which we commemorate this week—possible. The only thing worse than staying and working to bring order to the chaos would be to pull back, which would guarantee the triumph of our enemies. The question is how we fight and whether we are willing to invest—in time, treasure, and blood—what it will take to reduce the likelihood that Afghanistan will again threaten our national security.

A few points may help in thinking about the debate over more forces. First, we should be clear about what kind of forces are needed. There are combat troops, there are adviser/trainers, and there are civilians who are crucial to the creation of a sustainable civil order. Which sort, and how many of each sort, should be deployed? Second, the president has said that he wants "visible progress" by early next year. He should not feel bound by this; nor should we hold him to it, for there is no chance we can achieve it. Wars, particularly wars of the kind being waged in Afghanistan, do not lend themselves to managerial timetables. Third, it is unhelpful to speak of Afghanistan in isolation. With its extremist sympathies and nuclear capability, Pakistan is, as we suggested on our cover a few years ago, the most dangerous country in the world. There will be ever-dwindling public support for our efforts in the entire region if the president does not undertake to explain the complexity of the situation, define success, and lay out the consequences of failure.