National Journal‘s Michael Hirsch has an exceptionally insightful piece about John Kerry as a bellwether for Senate Democratic positioning on Afghanistan. It’s a story that lends itself to cynicism — Kerry must be wringing his hands because he wants to be secretary of state — and that cynicism might be appropriate. But it’s also possible that Kerry doesn’t think it’s self-evident that the war is an irredeemable disaster, and is groping for a salvageable path forward. There’s as much evidence for that proposition in Hirsch’s piece as there is for the cynical interpretation.

To wring my own hands for a moment: trying to find that kind of salvageable path would make more sense if the Obama administration weren’t committing the U.S. much deeper to the war after gesturing a year ago at the beginning of extrication. And Kerry isn’t on solid ground for this point:

“…There is a realistic national-security threat through the Taliban’s affiliation with al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s efforts to attack us.… Look at what happened in the Times Square bomber case; look what happened to the airplanes” that were recently threatened by package bombs.

These are points about a threat from al-Qaeda untethered to Afghanistan. Well, that’s not exactly true. In Faisal Shahzad’s case, these were his stated motivations:

At his court appearance in June, Shahzad said he wanted “to plead guilty and 100 times more”.

He said he wanted the US to know that if it did not leave Iraq and Afghanistan, “we will be attacking US”.

Shahzad’s courtroom diatribe is often truncated into a brief against the drones, but it goes much further than that. It stands to reason that the longer we stay in Afghanistan and expand the war into Pakistan, the more Faisal Shahzads will emerge. Perhaps that’s an acceptable cost. Not every provocative action is improper by the fact of its provocative force. But it has to be treated as a cost, not an argument for remaining in the same provocative position.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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