If you never read another word I write about Afghanistan strategy, please read this, hinging off an interview Gen. Petraeus did with NPR.

It’s a shame that Inskeep moved on to a different line of questioning. Because this sounds very much like Petraeus acknowledging that the U.S. cannot and will not kill every last al-Qaeda operative. What it can do, along with its Pakistani partners — and can’t do without them — is degrade al-Qaeda-central’s safe haven and harass it militarily when possible, so that it can’t export the extremism that senior officials continue to see emanating from the region. There’s a word for that: containment.

“Containment” in the post-9/11 age has acquired an unfortunate pejorative connotation. The Bush administration contrasted “containment” with “victory,” and repeatedly said that it was impossible to contain stateless terrorist networks. In doing so, George W. Bush ended up overtaxing American power without ever articulating how “victory” could be achieved; accordingly, it never was. But al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has proven over the past eight years that it does seek to hold territory, operating from somewhere. Reducing its ability to branch out from that place effectively limits the threat it poses, and gives U.S. and allied forces a place to respond if the cordon proves to be porous.

But is this actually how the Obama administration conceives of how the endgame is achieved — which is to say, an endgame that looks more like long-term vigilance and partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan? When I posed that question in March to Denis McDonough, one of the most influential of Obama’s advisers, that seemed to be his answer. But the actual answer still remains unarticulated — by President Obama, by his critics, and by the entire constellation of U.S. foreign-policy analysts. And if containment is the answer, does the U.S. transition to Afghan security forces beginning in 2011 mean subcontracting out the military edge of containment to the Afghans?

I think that gets, at least somewhat, to the question of why the Obama administration won’t send, as Marcy and Sen. Feingold ask, troops to Somalia. But the logic of their question still haunts the strategy.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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