When Forever Comes Crashing

You know what I didn’t really blog about today while Bob Gates was testifying? What he said about Afghanistan. That’s because he said so much about it, and in further depth than any other Obama administration cabinet officer/aspirant-officer to date, that I wanted to focus on that for my recently-published Washington Independent wrap piece:

Gates said Tuesday that he backs McKiernan’s request — but signaled that the troop spigot would not remain open. “I would be very skeptical about additional force levels beyond what Gen. McKiernan asked for,” Gates told the Senate panel. A former senior CIA official during the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gates recalled that “the Soviets couldn’t win that war with 120,000 troops and a ruthless approach” to Afghan civilians, since they adopted “the wrong strategy.”

While not exactly spelling out what the right strategy for Afghanistan would be, Gates went further than any Obama official has to date in sketching what such an approach might look like. “Above all,” he said, “there must be an Afghan face on this war.” More important to Gates than increasing U.S. troop levels, he said, was increasing the numbers of Afghan security forces, and he said the government of Hamid Karzai supports a U.S.-backed effort to increase the Afghan National Army to 130,000 troops from its current 80,000, though he said he was unsure “even that number will be large enough.” At several points in the hearing, Gates worried that the U.S. was losing support from the Afghan people, saying that the U.S. has “lost the strategic communications war” to the Afghan insurgency about U.S.-caused civilian casualties. Proposing a policy of “first apologiz[ing]” when U.S. troops kill civilians in error, Gates said, “We have to get the balance right with the Afghan people or we will lose this war.”

Notice — you’ll see more of it if you RTWT — that Gates is making many of the critiques of the war that the Get Afghanistan Right coalition makes. Thinking of the war as a primarily military effort is a category error. Civilian casualties are potentially fatal to the entire enterprise. The Soviets put lots of troops in and failed. Of course, Gates is in favor of a sustained troop increase and they’re not, which is their central disagreement. But there’s a ton of common ground here, and — this is important — unlike the surge debate in Iraq, a willingness on the part of escalation’s proponents to grapple, almost endlessly, with the consequences of their course of action going wrong. You didn’t hear Gates demagogue the issue.

Nor, interestingly, have you seen the right demagogue the issue — or even, unless I’m missing a trove of debate, appear to engage the Afghanistan discussion much at all. Do people just, in the final analysis, not care very much about Afghanistan?

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman