Strange Bedfellows Oppose Afghanistan Escalation

If President Obama decides to endorse Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, he'll find an unlikely assortment of allies. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin wrote a note to her Facebook followers stressing her belief that the additional troops were integral to success in Afghanistan. In September, she joined Karl Rove, William Kristol, David Frum, Robert Kagan, and more 30 other conservatives in signing a letter that urges the president to "give our commanders on the ground the forces they need to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy." On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain told reporters that he was "very convinced that General McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible." Possible GOP 2012 contenders Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, both supportive of McChrystal's assessment, concur. And Obama would also receive the blessing of hawkish Democrats like Evan Bayh of Indiana and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, who said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation that he supported additional deployments. All these voices—representing vying factions across the political spectrum—have a shared chorus: "Give the general what he needs."

And if Obama consents to McChrystal's troop request, his opposition will emerge as an equally unlikely group of naysayers. In Congress, members from both parties are expressing hesitation. Republicans are mostly playing it safe. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told NEWSWEEK he's reserving judgment until he hears how troop levels fit with the president's overall strategy in Afghanistan. Perhaps sensing Obama's proclivity for choosing a middle path, Republicans like Corker, along with McCain and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, who will both likely support a troop surge, are warning against "half measures," like committing to a modest troop increase. Graham told NEWSWEEK that's "the worst of all worlds … Either give the general what he needs or get out. There's no in between for me." That dichotomy is precisely the “straw man” Obama cautioned against in his meeting with congressional leaders yesterday.

Some Democrats, such as John Murtha and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, are openly oppositional. "I would not commit to more combat troops at this time," Levin said on Face the Nation. Others present more opaque reservations, including Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who says she's not sure there is sufficient support for sending more troops.

It's politically wise—and predictable—for politicians to hedge until the president makes his final decision. But their private views are reflected by academics and intellectuals in think tanks and on op-ed pages across the country.

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are lining up to voice concerns. They've become unexpected bedfellows, united in an opposition borne of ideologically distinct strains of realism that transcend standard partisan divides. These three groups are finding agreement on three things. Firstly, they share a skepticism that sending more troops coheres with an overarching strategy that is likely to succeed. General McChrystal is proposing a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, much like General Petraeus's "surge" strategy in Iraq. It requires pushing out beyond major cities to fight insurgents on their terrain with the goal of stabilizing the entire nation. As such, it requires significant additional resources. The alternative, which hews more closely to a plan being pushed by Vice President Joe Biden, is a counterterrorism (CT) strategy. Under CT, American forces would hold major urban areas and take advantage of superior technology—drones, for example—to strike Al Qaeda safe havens. CT requires fewer boots on the ground. Its strategic aim is simply defeating terrorism, not promoting stable democracies.

For most opponents, counterinsurgency is a murky strategy without a clear end game. "The administration is comprised of people who don't have a clarity of objectives about the mission and what we are supposed to be doing," Steven Clemens, director of the nonpartisan think tank American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "How do you define success? What are the benchmarks?" Clemens describes himself as a "progressive realist" who wants to support Obama but worries that deploying the resources necessary to successfully execute a full-scale counterinsurgency would break the back of American power in the eyes of others—both allies and foes—around the world. "I think Obama today is making exactly the same kind of mistakes that he accused George Bush of making with regard to Iraq," Clemens says. That is, pouring more resources into a situation that looks increasingly dire, with no real exit in sight. Successful COIN also requires significant nonmilitary resources to build civil and political infrastructure. Clemens worries that the U.S. is not infusing enough nonmilitary capability to promote long-term stability.

Like many libertarians, Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, believes the true cost of a COIN strategy far outweighs the benefits. "The counterinsurgency doctrine calls for far more troops even than is being contemplated," he says. He's deeply skeptical of nation-building exercises, which tend to require protracted, ambiguous military commitments. "Counterinsurgency is just nation building by another name. That's all it is," he says. He's unconvinced that's a role the United States should be playing at all.

Prof. Andrew Bacevich, a noted conservative military expert at Boston University, is perhaps most forceful in questioning of COIN and its implications for long, expensive nation building. "I reject the argument that Afghanistan constitutes a vital security interest of the United States. Although we have interests there, they're actually quite limited," says Bacevich. He mirrors the philosophy of traditional Burkean conservatives who rail against expansive roles for government both domestically and overseas. Like many conservatives, Bacevich believes that Afghanistan constitutes a critical national-security interest only to the extent that it provides sanctuary for violent jihadists desiring to attack the United States. Beyond that, America's stake in Afghanistan is negligible. Radical Islamic jihad, he argues, isn't confined to Afghanistan. It's a problem in Pakistan, London, and New York, and even a successful counterinsurgency strategy won't diminish those threats. He believes there are legitimate alternative strategies that meet America's security interests more cost-effectively, advocating for a CT-type plan that relies on intelligence, surveillance, and limited military action directed solely at Al Qaeda.

The second set of reservations opponents share is their deep-seated qualms about Afghanistan's leadership, notably President Hamid Karzai. Preble argues that a key precept of the COIN doctrine is having a credible indigenous partner, seen as legitimate by the nation's people. To most troop-surge opponents, Karzai fails on that count. American troops, Preble suggests, are simply supplanting indigenous security forces, which is acceptable if there is a realistic transition plan. But the rampant corruption in the Karzai government makes a successful transfer to a lawful, trustworthy security force unlikely.

Clemens worries about Karzai's propensity for passing oppressive legislation—like that impinging on the rights of women. America must realize that we're failing to transplant important cultural and human rights in Afghanistan, he says.

The third question opponents are grappling with is the broader debate over whether war is the proper antidote to radical jihadism. Liberals, predisposed to dovish strategies, have long argued that the appropriate response to terrorism is aggressive law enforcement rather than military engagement. "Afghanistan is serving as a proxy for multiple arguments, each of which is of far greater significance than Afghanistan itself," Bacevich says. Foremost among these is whether, in an era of global terrorism, COIN should be sanctified as the new American way of war. Surge opposition is coalescing around the notion that COIN is simply a recipe for endless, costly wars that have an arguably limited impact on the larger struggle against violent extremism. "If President Obama approves the McChyrstal report, he's not simply endorsing counterinsurgency," Bacevich says, "He is in effect perpetuating the global war on terrorism, even though Obama himself won't use that term."

Unshackled from a neoconservative Republican presidency, some conservatives are returning to their traditional ideological opposition to broad international military engagements and nation building. Concerns harbored by Republicans such as former senator Chuck Hagel for some time are now being echoed by prominent conservative columnists. In a now famous Washington Post op-ed on Sept. 1, George F. Will argued it was time to get out of Afghanistan. Obama isn't considering that option right now, but if he does, there too he'll likely be cheered on by some surprising players.

Join the Discussion