Alex Massie

The Afghan Conundrum | 1 December 2009

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Like Yglesias, I guess one ought to have an official "What I Think About Obama’s Escalation in Afghanistan post". And the truth is that I don't know. Don't know whether Obama's new strategy will work, don't know if it is wise or enough or too much or just about right. And I'm intensely suspicious of anyone who celebrates it and, most especially, those who immediately claim that it's insufficient, reckless, half-hearted or whatever. Because (almost) none of us have a clue, really, and pretending that we do does no-one any good.

What may be said, with all due caution, is that the administration is doing its best to make the best of a bad situation. It seems quite possible to me, even probable, that there is no solution to the matrix of problems we face in Afghanistan. If there were someone might have found it by now.

If this were a poker game you'd say "fold and move on" but war isn't a game of poker and the concept of sunk costs does not apply in war as neatly as it does in peace. So it seems to me that the prime consideration in Afghanistan is not victory but avoiding defeat. This isn't just because it's difficult to define victory but easy to discern what defeat would look like (though that's part of it). It's because the consequences of defeat - the shot in the arm it would give a bedraggled Islamist movement - are clearer than any of the benefits that come from whatever we might call "victory." Our "victory", if you like, is preventing their "victory". As David Betz says, wars have been fought for less.

This isn't a "Good War". It's a grubby, attritional campaign the costs of which outweigh the benefits in every way bar one: leaving Afghanistan any time in the foreseeable future will be interpreted as - and in fact be - a victory for Wahhabist terror and a defeat for the United States and its allies. We're stuck and it's not pleasant but that is, I think, where we are. There's not much that's noble about that and there's precious little glory to be won in Helmand or the Hindu Kush but that's war for you.

Meanwhile, we pour more troops in and hope that something will turn up as the war grinds on with no end in sight. It's not a great cause to ask a man to die for, but all that may be said for it is that it might be better than the alternatives and less frightening than the potential consequences of defeat.

UPDATE: Mike Crowley has a good post looking forward to Obama's speech.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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