If Mitt Romney is unwilling to support the US war plan in Afghanistan, the policy must be truly tattered. Romney has complained about setting “premature deadlines”, argued that Barack Obama has given up on “victory”, but has failed to offer an alternative to the current 2014 deadline for the end of American and NATO combat.
Afghanistan is becoming an abandoned war, one without a champion.
Official priority now seems to be keeping the Humpty-Dumpty regime in Kabul during a transition to negotiations and new power-sharing arrangements by 2014. The choice of the year 2014, two years after this November’s election, is a reminder of the two-year “decent interval” negotiated by the Nixon-Kissinger administration as South Vietnam’s client state disintegrated and fell forty years ago.
The US-installed Iraq government faces insurgency, corruption and instability as well. But Afghanistan is far worse. For one thing, a Sunni minority in Iraq challenges the Shiite majority, while in Afghanistan the Karzai regime has alienated the largest tribal group in the country, the Pashtun. Though Karzai himself is Pashtun, his state has little writ over the vast Pashtun territory in the country’s south. As the US withdraws ground forces, the chances of civil war increase in Afghanistan – unless the US-NATO forces can stitch together a face-saving retreat.
Over strong initial opposition from his generals, Obama has seemed intent since 2011 on phasing out the US combat role – leading him to escalate and then de-escalating on a steady timetable. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is attempting a unique double redeployment without having gained a military victory. Driving his policy is a desire to placate peace opinion at home and redirect budgetary savings to other priorities.
If Kabul suddenly implodes or the Taliban overreach their capacity, Obama will be faced with a military meltdown, which his political adversaries will exploit to the maximum. But it will take an extraordinary crisis to shake the American public out of their well-justified war-weariness. Obama seems to be following the advice sketched by Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, in a 2011 article recommending a Nixonian model of retreat:
“During an August 1972 Oval Office chat, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Kissinger:
‘Let’s be perfectly cold-blooded about it.... I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway.... [C]an we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam?’
Mr. Kissinger replied that American policy could remain viable if Saigon’s collapse ’looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink.... it will worry everybody... So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which... no one will give a damn.’”