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An Afghanistan Postscript

A few days before Richard Holbrooke made his infamous August 2009 “we’ll know success when we see it” comment about identifying success in Afghanistan, I had a conversation with an administration official about the Afghanistan strategy. It was nominally a journalistic activity but mostly shit-shooting. Official X observed the precipitous contemporaneous drop in public opinion on the war with a variation on the following comment: One lesson of the March strategy review is that if you consistently talk to the public about the war and its relationship to the national interest, then the public will support the strategy. But if the administration talks about the war every couple of months with the public and shelves it inbetween, you can’t expect people to stay receptive to the strategy. After all, if it’s so important, how can you only discuss it intermittently?

I recalled that conversation when watching Obama’s Deepwater Horizon speech, when he momentarily talked about the troops taking the fight to al-Qaeda worldwide, as if there weren’t 90-something thousand troops in Afghanistan. And that was the highest-profile discussion Obama devoted to Afghanistan since the West Point speech in December, unless you count May’s visit from President Karzai, which I doubt many people outside of Washington noticed. So: so much for consistent public presidential discussion of Afghanistan.

Look, I want to live in a world of faceless institutions, in which the machinery of government grinds onward after a country makes a national commitment and a democracy doesn’t need to have its attention stroked and rallied by a man in a High Office and journalists don’t whine about What Presidents Need To Say. But we don’t live in that world, and we have still committed enormous resources to Afghanistan, so none of us get to have our preferences.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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