The Times’s Ten-Step Program

Looking for the least-bad outcome in Afghanistan

The New York Times’s roundtable op-ed on Afghanistan yesterday doesn’t break any new ground, and it won’t carry the same weight as Peter Galbraith’s WaPo op-ed. But the Times piece is useful as a sort of documentary evidence—it shows how, against the backdrop of bad options and with the right frame in place, an otherwise unappealing call for escalation can be made to sound like a good thing.

The piece carries the optimistic, telling title “10 Steps to Victory in Afghanistan,” but you don’t have to be much of a pessimist to worry that few of these strategies offer much hope of “victory,” as that term is normally understood. Robert Pape and Linda Robinson seem to want to replicate the “Anbar Awakening” strategy from Iraq and buy off insurgents and their sympathizers. (Too bad Galbraith, in his “Good Morning America” interview this morning, said that wouldn’t work.) Nader Nadery wants to clean up corruption and create a system of accountability. (Once we come up with a foolproof plan for that, there will be plenty of other places to use it, too.) Gretchen Peters wants a “civilian surge” of tax experts to help wean Kabul off foreign aid. (An interesting idea, but sounds a bit like using a thimble to empty the ocean.) And Paul Pillar wants the Pakistani intelligence agency to stop patronizing the Taliban. (A good thing indeed—but something Pakistan’s government might not be able to accomplish, let alone America’s.)

So what’s left? Escalation, of one sort or another. Anthony Cordesman wants to “send more trainers, embedded advisers and partner units”—i.e., beef up the military presence. Andrew Exum wants the soldiers already deployed to take on more dangerous missions. And Fred and Kim Kagan offer the most direct call for more soldiers:

Rejecting General McChrystal’s request for more forces leaves two options. The United States withdraws and lets Afghanistan again collapse into chaos, or it keeps its military forces and civilians in harm’s way while denying them the resources they need to succeed. Neither is acceptable.

This sounds a lot like the David Brooks argument: going bigger on this war is the only chance we’ve got at “victory.” That may well be true, but it overlooks the fundamental questions of whether “victory” is achievable, and if it will be worth what it costs.

Fortunately, the Times did include a pair of contributions that took those questions into account. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff, speculates that the war’s outcome “may be determined already,” given the decline in public support in the U.S. And David Kilcullen suggests we are nearing the point at which the U.S. should begin “draw[ing] down troops” and preparing for the fall of the Kabul government.

If we’re fixed on achieving “victory,” the Kilcullen approach should be dismissed out of hand. Given the state of the war effort, though, and it seems to merit consideration. So maybe it’s time we adopt a new frame: “10 Steps to the Least-Bad Outcome,” anyone?

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.