War fatigue setting in on Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has proven himself to be a very skilled political player throughout his career in Washington by being able to tap into political currents and manipulate the narrative. Unlike some of his predecessors, Gates can see which way the wind is blowing. Therefore, his latest comments on U.S. foreign policy should be given extra attention. In a speech to West Point cadets Friday, Gates made a rather blunt assessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Gates’ message was that the U.S. military needs “better ways of foreseeing and preparing for national security threats,” but the reference to General MacArthur reveals an ambivalence that goes deeper than mere technocratic assessments of doing what the United States does now better. The secretary himself admitted that post-Vietnam hasn’t got a single intervention right, and the United States has consistently underestimated the challenges involved. If Gates’ hesitance over these wars of choice is representative of a mood change in Washington, which it very well might be, a question arises: After nearly a decade of fighting, are we seeing the beginnings of an Afghanistan syndrome?

Gates’ speech coincided with a significant development on the ground in Afghanistan; the U.S. military has begun pulling out of the Pech valley in Kunar province. An area once deemed vital to U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan is now being handed back to the Afghans. When the pullout is complete in less than two months, the Afghan army will have sole ownership of the valley. The New York Times report offers a stark reversal of U.S. attitude:

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

More than a tactical readjustment, the pullout from Pech shows a strategic shift. U.S. forces are now being redeployed to focus on more populated areas. Commenting on the pullout, Joshua Foust writes that despite potential costs, the move makes sense:

The strategic calculus of withdrawing from Pech is, however, very clear. Within the next three or four years, the U.S. will have to turn over responsibility for the country to the Afghans and transition to serving as a backup, rather than a main force. This means Afghans need to get used to controlling their own territory for once, however imperfectly and with whatever doubts and fears everyone might have. Northern Kunar will never be a central front of the war, and the costs—in terms of people, resources, money, and attention—that holding onto a narrow slice of the valley imposed were intolerable on any medium time frame.

While the move might make U.S. efforts more effective in Afghanistan, Leslie H. Gelb is less than impressed with how the war is being handled. In an unusually harsh op-ed in the Daily Beast brimming with contempt, Gelb chides the Bush and Obama administrations for giving the military “the task of searching for answers, for workable strategies, that didn't exist.” He has little faith left in the war and proposes that almost all U.S. and NATO forces be pulled out of Afghanistan:

All those Americans and allies who served in this war are true heroes. But we do not honor these heroes by making more American and allied heroes in Afghanistan, whether in the Pech or in the cities. Enough heroes there.

Gelb is not the only one showing war fatigue. Former Arkansas Governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee made news this week when he expressed deep doubts about the war in Afghanistan. “I don't think any of us know exactly. We are there. The question is, I'm asking people, 'Tell me, what is it we do to say we are done? Help me to understand that because I'm not sure.'” He joins an increasingly large group of politicians and opinion makers on the right asking for a fundamental reassessment of the war in Afghanistan. In January, deficit hawk Grover Norquist took a break from tax policies to urge a real political debate on Afghanistan.

If President Barack Obama thought he had successfully sidelined the debate over Afghanistan, he looks to be proven quite wrong. There appears to be a real change of mood on the war, and with the administration committing troops to 2014 and beyond, the president is stuck defending an increasingly unpopular war.

But is the growing hesitance over the war in Afghanistan part of a larger shift in thinking on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy? Not necessarily. Last year’s midterms held a promise of change, with an influx of so-called Tea Party candidates getting elected. But as Benjamin H. Friedman with the Cato Institute has noted (with research help from our own Matt Fay), there is little reason to believe the new Congress will be less hawkish. Scoring House and Senate Republicans on Afghanistan and defense spending, Friedman came to three conclusions: there is no ‘isolationist’ wing of the GOP, the Tea Party is not mellowing Republican militarism, and fewer new Republican members have defined positions on these issues.

Doubts about the war in Afghanistan appear to be rooted in pragmatic considerations of war costs, the growing deficit, and the plain fact that the United States and its allies are nowhere near ‘victory’. This could change. While libertarians remain almost alone on the right in advocating a grand strategy of restrain, there is potential for a new foreign policy coalition across the political spectrum. In addition, a significant number of noted scholars are giving intellectual legitimacy to a new grand strategy. Heavy hitters such John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, Barry Posen, Eugene Gholz, and Christopher Layne are questioning the sustainability and utility of a hegemonic United States and propose a new approach, such as offshore balancing.

However, obstacles to a new course remain tall and many. The idea of the United States playing an activist role in the world is entrenched in U.S. politics, and as Andrew Bacevich has often noted, the all-volunteer force shields a large part of the population from the cost of wars of choice. Calls for U.S. action in the Middle East in response to the crises there only serve as further reminder that the underlying assumption of U.S. foreign policy is that of intervention. But should the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and beyond prove successful, it might serve as a timely reminder that sometimes a hands-off approach is better suited for preserving U.S. interests. In this context, the war in Afghanistan is only a small piece of a much larger picture, but Gates’ reading of the writing on the wall could prove to be quite prescient.

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