Failure in Afghanistan will cost much, much more than the billions spent on the surge, says FPI Director Robert Kagan

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"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” This was the core sound bite in President Obama’s speech announcing the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and it was an extraordinary statement. Of course, such sentiments have been uttered many times over the years. George McGovern’s “Come Home America” campaign theme in 1972 comes to mind, and we’re sure Patrick Buchanan, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and George Will have said either exactly that or something similar at one time or another.

Not since the 1930s has an American president struck such an isolationist theme in a speech to the American people, however. By juxtaposing the winding down of the war in Afghanistan with the need to focus on domestic problems, Obama gave presidential sanction to the erroneous but nevertheless widespread belief that whatever the United States does abroad detracts from our ability to address our problems at home. We wonder if the speechwriters, policymakers, and of course the president himself fully understood the damaging effect such a statement can and probably will have on the entire scope of American foreign and defense policy.

We can imagine that line being thrown back in the administration’s face the next time it comes to Congress to defend the foreign aid and defense budgets, the intervention in Libya, or the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Asia and Europe. But maybe Obama’s increasingly evident concern about winning reelection trumped such issues. Maybe the cheap shot—with its clear implication that the efforts of our military in Afghanistan actually detract from the nation’s well-being—was too good to pass up.

And it is a cheap shot. Here’s the core point that Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, George Will, and now Barack Obama can’t quite seem to understand: Failure in Afghanistan will cost much, much more than the billions spent on this surge. What was the cost to the U.S. economy of the attacks on 9/11? What will be the cost if the terrorist groups now operating in Afghanistan—the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba, as well as al Qaeda—are able to reconstitute safe havens and the next president has to send troops back in to clear them out again? It is a peculiar kind of wisdom that can only see the problems and costs of today and cannot imagine the problems and costs of tomorrow.

The argument that the cost of the surge in Afghanistan undermines our ability to address our domestic problems is especially risible coming from this president. It would be one thing if cutting back in Afghanistan were part of a sweeping deficit-reduction plan where domestic programs and entitlements were getting the axe, too. It would still be a mistake. But at least it would be consistent.

There is something appallingly cynical, however, in this president suggesting that the American fiscal crisis required overruling his military leadership and ordering a more rapid and therefore more dangerous drawdown in Afghanistan—this, after two and a half years of proposing spending on domestic programs that dwarfs the cost of the surge.

We’re glad to see no one is contesting the fact that the president overruled the unanimous advice of his military leadership in ordering this drawdown. Yes, our military leaders have saluted and “endorsed” the president’s plan. But they make no secret of their opposition to it. This is especially true of the September 2012 deadline. Where did that date come from? It must have come from Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago because, while we can see a political reason for wanting those troops out before voters go to the polls in November 2012, there is no military or strategic justification whatsoever. In Obama’s new plan, the forces will be withdrawing right in the middle of the fighting season.

General David Petraeus and his commanders wanted to get two more full fighting seasons in before ending the surge. This year they are battering and pushing back the Taliban and the terrorists from the southern and central parts of Afghanistan. Next year their goal was to push them out of the eastern parts of Afghanistan. Now that effort has been cast into serious doubt. The result may be continued safe havens for the enemy, allowing them to begin attacking again in the areas cleared out this year by the surge. The difference between Obama’s politically motivated strategy and the commanders’ military strategy could well prove the difference between success and failure.

The psychological effect of Obama’s announcement may be just as damaging. The tone of the speech, the war-weariness it exhibited, combined with the unexpectedly rapid drawdown, will convince everyone in the region, and everyone in the world, that the United States can’t wait to get out, regardless of the consequences. Afghan civilians who have to decide what’s safest, sticking with the Americans or giving in to the Taliban, will be increasingly unlikely to choose the Americans. Taliban fighters trying to decide whether it might be a good idea to lay down their weapons before being crushed by an inevitable American victory will now view that victory as anything but inevitable. Bad actors in Pakistan, who have always doubted America’s staying power, will now feel confident that we are leaving fast and will act accordingly. Our European allies, who were barely hanging on in Afghanistan in any case, will no doubt trip over themselves in a rush to the exits. They have “nation-building” to do at home, too.

And although this decision was clearly made for political reasons, the irony is that it is likely to backfire. If the war does not look like it is going well next spring and summer, as troops are being prematurely withdrawn, Obama will take the blame. Everyone will know that he overruled his military advisers to formulate this plan. Everyone will know he did it for political reasons. Obama will own it. And the thing is, there will still be 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan—only at that point, instead of being part of a winning effort, they could well be part of a losing effort. Oh, to be the Republican nominee in that scenario!

Which brings us to the Republicans. They have not all covered themselves in glory this week. Some have been stalwarts in opposing the president’s plan, and for the right reasons. But some have been cautious, evidently worrying about the same polls that Obama is worrying about.

That is a mistake. It is a mistake in the most fundamental sense that losing in Afghanistan is profoundly not in America’s interest, and every Republican has an obligation to place national interests above party and personal ambition. But it is also a political mistake. We know the conventional wisdom is that this election will be won on the economy. That may be mostly true, but we are confident that it is not entirely true. The next two years are going to continue to be dangerous times for the United States and for our friends and allies around the world. Indeed, they may be more dangerous than the past few years.

The Middle East is in turmoil. Yemen may be collapsing and could become a base for a very dangerous terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States may well have to use force to address that danger. Regimes in the Arab world are toppling, and it is unclear what will replace them. China grows stronger. Russia grows more authoritarian. Iran may be close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. We could go on.

The point is that 2012 will be an election about the economy, but it will also be an election about national security. The American people may tell pollsters they want to focus on domestic problems—they have said that many times in the past, as well—but they will also be looking to see who can be a reliable and strong commander in chief. Me-too-ing Obama or, worse, trying to outflank him on the dovish left will not serve any candidate well in the general election. National security until now has been a Republican advantage. To squander that advantage in these times of global danger would be worse than a blunder. It would be a crime.

- Originally written for The Weekly Standard

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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