The War Has Been Postponed

Harvey Sapolsky. Defense News, 19 October 2009.

Seven months ago, the U.S. military was being praised by many security specialists as finally having gotten it: It un­derstood that its future was coun­terinsurgency best practices, which means nation-build­ing under fire from insur­gents in the world’s tough­est neighbor­ hoods. Yes, it had taken a while, but the mili­tary’s top lead­ership had fi­nally seen the light. Future war would mean fighting insurgencies, and counterin­surgency was an intera­gency mili­ tary/civilian team effort requiring skills in building governments, putting in the national plumbing — lights, roads, sewers, schools — and protecting the citizens from insurgents while training the local military to conduct se­curity operations and to think and behave democratically.

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus wrote the manual. All the big think tanks and study groups had called it. America needed to nation-build to fight terrorism. Defense Secre­tary Robert Gates had cut the pro­grams of the old thinkers who wanted Cold War-type systems in­stead of signing up for the new fight. The neo-cons had been ban­ished, but their democracy­spreading anti-al-Qaida strategy had melded nearly seamlessly with liberal internationalist doc­trine stating that terrorism was bred in the hopelessness of failed impoverished states.

Afghanistan was to be the test case. Iraq was the bad war, but Afghanistan was the good one. Our allies were there, NATO somehow being tricked into showing up. The United Nations was there. Humanitarian groups were there. Next door was a threatened Pakistan, the Muslim nation with nuclear weapons and an extremist presence. We had to get Afghanistan right.

The new administration was for it. The new security team was filled with advocates recruited from the think tanks and academia, people who had done the articles and con­ference volumes on the subject. Most of the correspondents cover­ing the war were on board. There was a consensus as much as con­sensus exists these days.

Nation-Builders Vanish

And today it all seems so long ago. There is hardly anyone be­yond the few neo-cons left stand­ing and some Republican com­mentators who is willing to en­dorse the military’s plan for the full nation-building deal. Counterinsur­gent advocates are silent. Liberal interventionists are silent. We hear only how corrupt the Afghan gov­ernment is and how backward Afghanistan is, as if this is news.

The Obama administration is supposedly mulling its options, ignoring the nation-building goals it was proclaiming for Afghanis­tan in March and still giving speeches about as late as August.

I think the U.S. health care de­bate did it. The Obama administra­tion is having a much harder fight to gain enactment of health-care reform than seemed likely in the spring. The big Democratic ma­jorities it has in Congress are ap­parently not big enough to get it done. The cost of reform is being questioned, especially after the se­ries of expensive bailouts for the nation’s banks, housing market and auto industry. War and domes­tic reform don’t mix well.

In the modern parade of Demo­cratic Party presidents, Franklin Roosevelt did reform first, then war; Harry Truman did war, not reform; Lyndon Johnson tried re­form and war simultaneously, and essentially lost both and a Demo­crat majority for a generation. Jimmy Carter did nothing, and President Bill Clinton tried but gave up on both reform and war.

I think President Obama is go­ing to downplay the war, not sur­rendering outright but finding a way to make the war less impor­tant politically than reform or less visible until reform is secure domestically. More troops per­haps, but deployed more slowly than requested. More aid for Afghanistan, but dependent upon the demonstration of the Afghan government’s own improvements. Most of the nation-builder advo­cates are loyal Democrats and will hold their tongues. The war, and certainly the application of the full counterinsurgency manu­al, has been postponed until health care reform is in place. ■

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