Losing George Will on Afghanistan is not quite the same as losing Walter Cronkite on Vietnam. For one thing, Will's column today, calling for the United States to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan, can hardly be considered a surprise. Will, less fashionable in recent years than in the past, has long been suspicious of, even hostile to, anything that could be considered "nation-building".
Nonetheless, it is a moment. A minor one, but a moment nevertheless. Obama - and General Stanley McChrystal - can count on support from the neoconservative wing of the Republican party, but conservative support for the Afghan campaign can be expected to slowly ebb away.
The problem is that Obama might need support from conservatives. As Mike Allen reports today, it's liberals the White House worries about. Russ Feingold - as always a reliable bellwether on these matters - has already called for a clear timetable upon to which to base a US pull-out from Afghanistan. There's no reason to suppose that liberal discontent with the Afghan project will diminish. How long before Obama's Afghan position is as weak as Gordon Brown's? (This is a question for David Cameron too: what, apart from doing "more" is the Tories real Afghan policy? Or is that it?)
So it was interesting to read the argument made by Bruce Riedel, ex-CIA and the chap who ran the White House's Afghanistan Review earlier this year. He explained the importance of Afghanistan in these terms:
This is not the sort of argument that is often made in public. No wonder since, effectively, it really does demand an open-ended potentially decades long commitment to Afghanistan of a sort that understandably spooks the public. It's the Mastermind school of war: We've started so we'll finish.“
The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World.This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.
And, as Mike Crowley points out, it's not dissimilar to some of the arguments used by te Bush administration during the Iraq war. But there's a difference and one that makes me suspect that, unfortunately, Riedel might be right. If a western rereat from Afghanistan is accompanied by the Taliban returning to power then it's hard to portray this as anything other than a serious, even humiliating, defeat for the US-led coalition. It might not be as catastrophic a defeat as Vietnam or, in military terms, the Soviets' experience in Afghanistan, but a retreat is a retreat nonetheless. I suspect it would indeed "resonate" throughout the "Islamic world". And not in a good way.
That leaves us in the unfortunate position of fighting a war for the sake of appearances as much as anything else. Those appearances matter of course since they have real-world consequences. Or, at least the potential for real-world, calamitous consequences. But if the Afghan War has, in some sense, become a matter of saving face then you can see why you begin to have a problem selling it.
Nevertheless, my suspicion - though it's only that - is that this "Saving Face" rationale is atually a bigger, more important matter than the publicly-proclaimed need to prevent terrorists from establishing training bases in the Hindu Kush. That might, as Will suggests, be accomplished by drones and airstrikes and special forces but it might not be enough to save face...
All this, then, leaves us in an unsatisfactory place. The costs of continuining the commitment to Afghanistan are steep and clear; the costs of the alternatives murky, uncertain and potentially equally awful.
So what should we do?