Obama's Afghan Dilemma: The Only Real Exit Strategy Is Political Suicide

President Obama said yesterday he is still several weeks away from adopting a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

What's taking so long? Obama wants his plan to include an exit strategy -- or an "endgame" as he put it yesterday. And there isn't one -- at least not one that's politically palatable.

Obama has talked about the need for an exit strategy before, dating back at least to a "60 Minutes" interview in March, during the rollout of his initial Afghan plan. He made the point pretty emphatically: "There's gotta be an exit strategy."

Up until a few months ago, Obama evidently thought he had one. Presumably, it involved handing the country back to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's stable, united government in fairly short order.

But then Karzai's re-election turned into a fiasco, exposing Afghanistan's still-deep divisions and still-profound corruption -- and making it abundantly clear to everyone that there will be no exit under those conditions, certainly not anytime soon.

In fact at this point, according to Paul R. Pillar, a Georgetown University professor who formerly served as the CIA's chief intelligence analyst for the Middle East, it's pretty clear that the goal of leaving behind a stable, democratic Afghanistan is unattainable.

"With the application of military force, some degree of short-term stability over some portion of Afghanistan is probably achievable," Pillar told me. "That is not to say that we have stabilized Afghanistan or that whenever we get out we'll have established some long-term basis for peace and stability. I don't think we can do that."

So is there any alternative to an open-ended commitment? The only genuine exit strategy left involves unilateral disengagement. But politically, that's a nonstarter -- at least for now. It is widely considered inevitable that if Obama began to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan without being able to declare some form of victory, he would be derided in the press and by Republicans as a coward and a quitter.

This is especially true because Obama painted himself into a corner by calling the Afghan campaign a "war of necessity" rather than a war of choice three months ago -- by which time he should have known better.

Vice President Biden, among others, is pushing what many regional experts think is the most realistic plan at this point: Scaling back American forces in Afghanistan and focusing more on Pakistan -- which is where Al Qaeda actually is right now. Biden and others see Pakistan as presenting the real national security threat -- and Afghanistan simply being a futile and costly exercise in nation-building.

But as far as actually pulling the troops out of Afghanistan entirely, Biden's plan doesn't have an endgame either.

Obama's rejection last week of all four alternatives presented by his national security staff marked a turning point for his presidency.

"He has figured out that the stakes are not as great as he once believed; that the commitment looks open-ended; that the conditions there are not promising; and that if he's not careful, this will be a dead weight around the rest of his presidency," says Harvard international relations professor Stephen M. Walt, who also blogs for Foreign Policy. "And so he's looking for an alternative."

It took Obama this long to figure it out, Walt told me, because "I don't think this was an issue he had mastered before he became president. I think that early in the administration, most of the advice he was getting was from one side. It was mostly coming from people who were sort of invested in the mission."

Since then, Walt says, Obama has heard a lot more from others in the administration -- including Biden -- who are skeptical of a military solution in Afghanistan. The Afghan election was a "sobering moment" that made it clear "just how weak our Afghan partner was," Walt says. The U.S. ambassador in Kabul also recently informed the White House of his deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until Karzai's government gets it together. And for good measure, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag last week acknowledged that sending 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan would cost an extra $40 billion a year.

"If political realities were not a constraint, disengagement from Afghanistan would be the best course of action," Pillar says. "But I accept the political reality that that is off the table. The president would get pilloried as being a softie and as not having the courage and determination supposedly to stand up for U.S. security. I don't buy any of that criticism myself, but that would be the political reality he's facing."

As it happens, in this case political reality actually diverges quite markedly from public opinion. The public overwhelmingly opposes the war -- 57 percent to 39 percent, according to the latest Associated Press poll. And disengagement from Afghanistan -- even though it's not even being discussed as a serious option in political circles -- is considerably more popular with the American public than escalation, which is almost all anyone in Washington can talk about. The latest CNN poll found that 49 percent of Americans favored reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan -- with 28 percent saying they should all be withdrawn immediately -- compared to less than 40 percent who want to send more.

Generalized public sentiment alone, however, is unlikely to force any American president to consider a military withdrawal without victory. "It is always easier in the short term to stay in than to get out," says Walt. "And therefore the temptation to take one more drink is always there."

What it would take is a great deal of organized political pressure. But there is no significant peace movement pushing for withdrawal. There is, in fact, almost no political manifestation whatsoever of what is the majority view. The political pressure is all coming from one side.

As Pillar explains, Democrats have long been on the defense on national security issues -- and they know that "Republicans could be skillful at exploiting this." He adds: "All it takes is one terrorist attack, nothing even on the 9/11 scale, with some sort of Afghan connections, to punctuate emphatically that line of criticism."

(Relatedly, antiwar scholar Jonathan Schell asks in his syndicated column: "[M]ust liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right over national security? What is the source of this right-wing veto over presidents, congressmen, and public opinion? Whoever can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history -- and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama over Afghanistan.")

In the meantime, says Walt, "I think his 'exit strategy' is going to be to .... focus on trying to build an Afghan partner that you can hand this problem to -- more or less the same way we're handing Iraq back to an Iraqi government -- and hope that after some decent interval either things are going well and we can leave, or it's so obvious to everyone that it's not fixable, that he can say, 'Well at last we tried and now we're going to get out.'"

And while our nation's most predictably superficial media figures are jumping all over Obama for taking too long to make up his mind, the quality of the debate -- not to mention the existence of the debate itself -- is a tremendous improvement over the heedless rush to war in Iraq by the Bush administration.

"Unlike the run-up to war in Iraq, there has been a more wide-ranging national conversation about this," says Walt. "You have a lot of voices out there. Lots of people have questioned what we're doing over there. And I think some of those views may have penetrated within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Not that they've necessarily carried the day, but they've forced people in the administration to think more broadly."

The conversation, while healthy, is also depressing. "What's really striking about the debate is that even most of the advocates of staying in and doing more... acknowledge that it's going to be very difficult, take a long time, and it still may not succeed," Walt says. "None of them promise success. And so you have this strange situation where even the advocates are not very optimistic. And I think that's telling."

Finally, when it comes to exit strategies, there's one more thing to keep in mind. Three years from now, after the next presidential election, the political calculus will be considerably different.

If Obama wins, Pillar says, "I think in his second term he will have the liberty to do a number of things."

(Also see my March Washington Post column, "Where's the Exit Strategy?" and my September Huffington Post column, over-optimistically titled "Obama Finally Facing Reality in Afghanistan".)

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