This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
No one knows who’s winning or losing in Afghanistan. But everybody’s playing the expectations game.
In the last few days, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been out to lower America’s expectations of the war. Both invoked “Jeffersonian democracy” – as in what Afghanistan is never going to become.
Obama’s low-expectations goal: an Afghanistan that won’t harbor international terrorists. He didn’t say it, but denying terrorists a base for toppling the Pakistani government is crucial; a nuclear arsenal in the hands of radical Islamists is a terrifying prospect.
Defining success as an absence of terrorism leaves everything else in play, including democracy, human rights and the freedom of Afghanistan’s women. Obama’s unspoken message: You may be appalled at how Afghanistan turns out, even if we “succeed.”
Another set of expectations revolves around the calendar, specifically the month of July 2011. That’s when Obama has announced he will begin pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. But “begin” is a slippery word.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates – presumably with Obama’s blessing – said Sunday that only “fairly limited numbers” will be withdrawn next summer. “Fairly” and “limited” both leave the plan undefined. The president could pull out 1,000 troops, leave almost 100,000 in place and still honor that promise.
Meanwhile, the Taliban is invoking the eventual U.S. withdrawal in its own expectations game. It is telling Afghan villagers that, sooner or later, the Americans will be gone – and the Taliban, with its horsewhips and public executions, will still be around.
The Afghan government is guessing whether to put its money on the Americans or make a deal with the Taliban’s leaders. Likewise the Pakistani government.
They’re all smart enough to know that the United States won’t be patrolling the provinces of Afghanistan 10 years hence. But will it patrol the provinces long enough and co-opt enough Taliban soldiers to prevent the country from relapsing into a terrorist host state?
With American casualties mounting and Obama’s own Democratic Party rebelling against his war leadership, that’s the fundamental question on which all the expectations turn.
Many of these same uncertainties – and warring expectations – dominated the U.S. mission in Iraq, when the Bush administration was tragically mismanaging that conflict and the insurgency appeared to be winning.
They did not win because Bush in 2007 actually did something right: He hired Gates and Gen. David Petraeus and convinced Iraqis he was too bull-headed and politically reckless to let the insurgents win. The “surge” they launched, after years of failure, quelled speculations about U.S. staying power. Americans troops are now being quickly withdrawn from a relatively stable, non-terrorist, even vaguely democratic Iraq.
Expectations of Iraq were much lower in 2006. Four years from now, let’s hope we can say the same of today’s Afghanistan.