An Open Debate on the Afghan War?

A measure of dissent on the full counterinsurgency doctrine

Expert opinion in the foreign policy think-tank world—your American Enterprise Institutes, your Councils on Foreign Relations, etc.—runs, on balance, hawkish. The Iraq War debate provided ample evidence for this claim, and Les Gelb, the president emeritus of CFR, owned up to it in an essay in Democracy (PDF) that has recently sparked some interesting commentary from Glenn Greenwald and Justin Logan. (Gelb: “My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate
tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.”) With appropriate caveats in place, this can be taken as one of the background conditions of contemporary political debates.

So, for observers of a more dovish bent, the preponderance of think-tank types on the panel that advised Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s review of American policy in Afghanistan is matter of some concern. By all accounts, that review will soon lead to a formal request for a substantial increase in American troops—a necessity for the counterinsurgency approach that, as CJR has noted, is favored by the Center for a New American Security, a recent addition to the foreign policy think-tank scene.

There’s a media angle here, too: with the Afghanistan war at a crisis point, Washington is debating whether to go big and provide more troops for counterinsurgency, or go small with a pared-down counterterrorism effort. (Going home seems not really to be on the table.) Think-tank types who favor going big will likely be popping up on major op-ed pages with greater frequency over the next month, and their views will have influence even when their bylines don’t appear—David Brooks cited Stephen Biddle, a fellow at Council on Foreign Relations and a member of McChrystal’s advisory panel, in his recent New York Times column arguing that “only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success.”*

But there are also some tentative signs that, on this particular debate, the think-tankers won’t all fall in line behind more the hawkish option. Consider Richard Haass, Gelb’s successor as CFR president and a man who, though he served in the early years of the Bush administration, has said he was “60 percent against” the Iraq War. Last month, in an op-ed for The New York Times, Haass batted down Barack Obama’s claim that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” noted the risks of the counterinsurgency approach, and outlined alternatives. Then, having stepped right up to the line, Haass retreated: “My judgment is that American interests are sufficiently important, prospects for achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Mr. Obama’s measured strategy.”

This was essentially the tightrope another of the Times’s columnists, Thomas Friedman, has been walking for months now: I don’t really believe in the counterinsurgency effort, but I can’t bring myself to give up on it. Still, Haass was conspicuously leaving himself room to maneuver, and he seemed to be taking advantage of that room in an interview with the German publication Spiegel, posted online Monday. Much of the interview covers the same ground as the op-ed, which is almost repeated verbatim at one point. Again, Haass does not make a declarative statement against deploying more troops, and he disavows any plan for withdrawal, or “abandoning Afghanistan.”

But neither, this time, does he say he supports the current strategy. As for what he does say, highlights include “we need to challenge the assumption that what happens in Afghanistan is critical for the global effort against terrorism,” and “I am no longer sure what happens in Afghanistan is still essential to the war on terrorism.” And then there’s this exchange:

SPIEGEL: Isn’t that effort [against global terrorism] doomed if Afghanistan remains a safe haven for terrorists? That is why the West invaded the country, after all.

Haass: That is not clear either. Even if terrorists were to be denied Afghanistan, they could operate out of other countries. We should also reconsider whether what happens in Afghanistan is essential for the future in Pakistan which, frankly, matters more to the United States.

In other words, the president of the very establishment, very centrist Council on Foreign Relations is starting to sound a little bit like a liberal blogger.

It would be a mistake to make too much of these statements—Haass is only one individual, and an interview with a European publication is probably not the first place one goes to try to influence American policymakers. Still, it’s hard to see how these comments could be reconciled with support for an escalation of the war effort. Given widespread disillusionment with the Karzai regime, if Afghanistan is not a central front to the war on terror, and it is not essential for the future of Pakistan, what is a counterinsurgency for?

It will be interesting to see, the next time Haass takes to the pages of a major news outlet, how far he goes in pressing this logic. It will also be interesting to see how many of his brethren in the think-tank world take up this line of thinking. The answers to those questions could have real consequences for how the debate over the war’s future plays out in the press.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.