Tell Me How This Ends, And I Mean It This Time

So about that exit strategy that President Obama apparently wants. Here’s Hillary Rodham Clinton on ‘Meet The Press’:

We want to get Al Qaeda. We want to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat those who attacked us. And we want to be able to give the Afghans the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves. We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We’re not interested in any long term you know, presence there. We came to do a job and unfortunately it wasn’t done over the last eight years.

It’s clear to everyone that these are two different understandings of the “job,” right? As I have been writing since the day the strategy was announced in March, if the goal is to disrupt/dismantle/defeat al-Qaeda, then it doesn’t matter when the Afghan national security forces are “able to defend themselves.” It’s nice if the ANSF can do some TCB, but it’s orthogonal to that stated goal. By contrast, if the goal is to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan, then it matters a great deal, since we don’t want to leave Afghanistan in a state of chaos. But that entails a recognition that we’re not going to disrupt/dismantle/defeat al-Qaeda. Instead, we’ll be containing it, through a (mostly) indirect approach.

Forgive my presumptuousness, but it might be a good idea to be clear about which goal we’re actually going to pursue. I can see arguments for both approaches and drawbacks as well. And I wonder what would happen if Obama said something like, Let’s be honest here. The threat from al-Qaeda is real. But there’s just no way we’re going to kill every last one of them — well, I mean, we’re not going to carpetbomb Waziristan, realistically — and it’s also clear that we’ve got some serious resource constraints here. An ultimately more sustainable approach here is going to be to aid the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking away the dire circumstances that al-Qaeda exploits for strategic depth, so the terrorists are basically stuck in Waziristan and unable to export its murderous intentions. That’s still going to require a really big commitment! But we think it’s going to be what gets us out of this goddamn terrorism problem in a manner that most satisfies our interests.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman