U.S. President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 Oval Office speech on the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq had many purposes: to claim a measure of credit for largely fulfilling one of his major campaign promises; to thank those who have served and sacrificed in the cause; to spread the balm of unity over any lingering domestic wounds; to assure Americans that it has all been worth it and that no dishonor was attached to this foreign adventure, which was opposed by many in Obama’s own party and by him from the beginning.
Of all those purposes, and any others that might have been conceived, the need to express assurance of the war’s validity — and honor in its outcome — is by far the most important. Any national leader must protect and nurture the legend of any war over which he presides, even those — actually, particularly those — he has brought to a close. The people need to feel that the sacrifice in blood and treasure was worth it, that the mission’s rationale still makes sense, that the nation’s standing and prestige remain intact.
In terms of America, nothing illustrates this more starkly than the Vietnam experience. This was a war that emerged quite naturally out of a foreign policy outlook, “containment,” that had shaped American behavior in the world for nearly two decades and would continue to shape it for another two decades. Hence, one could argue that the Vietnam War was a noble effort entirely consistent with a policy that eventually proved brilliantly successful. But the national pain of defeat in that war spawned an entirely different legend — that it was a huge mistake and a tragic loss of life for no defensible purpose. The impact of that legend upon the national consciousness could be seen for decades — in war-powers battles between the president and Congress, in a halting defense posture often attributed to what was called the “Vietnam Syndrome,” in the lingering civic hostility engendered when the subject emerged among fellow citizens, in the flow of tears shed daily at Washington’s Vietnam Memorial.
So the presidential responsibility for the legend of war is no trivial matter when young Americans begin returning home in body bags. A wise president will keep it well established in his mind in selling a war, in prosecuting it and eventually in explaining it at its conclusion.
This important presidential function posed two particular challenges for Obama during his Oval Office speech: First, his past opposition to the war in Iraq created a danger that he might appear insincere or artificial in his expressions, and second, it isn’t entirely clear that the legend can hold up, that the stated rationale for the war really withstands serious scrutiny. Yes, America did depose Saddam Hussein and his regime. But the broader aims of the war — to establish a stable, pro-Western regime in the country and thus maintain a geopolitical counterweight to the regional ambitions of Iran — remain unfulfilled. The president handled the first challenge with aplomb, hailing the war’s outcome (so far) while avoiding the political schisms that it bred and delivering expressions of appreciation and respect for his erstwhile adversaries on the issue. Whether he succeeds in the second challenge likely will depend upon events in Iraq, where 50,000 American troops remain to support Iraqi security forces and help maintain stability.
But Obama’s effort to preserve the war’s legend, which was ribboned throughout his speech, raises the specter of an even greater challenge of preserving the legend of a different war — the war in Afghanistan, which Obama says will begin to wind down for America in July of next year. It remains a very open question whether events will unfold in that nettlesome conflict in such a way as to allow for a reassuring legend when the troops come home. That open question is particularly stark given the fundamental reality that America is not going to bring about a victory in Afghanistan in any conventional sense. The Taliban insurgency that the United States is trying to subdue with its counterinsurgency effort is not going to go away and, indeed, the Taliban will likely have to be part of any accommodation that can precede America’s withdrawal.
Thus, the Obama administration has become increasingly focused on what some involved in war planning call “the endgame.” By that, they mean essentially a strategy for extricating the country from Afghanistan while preserving a reasonable level of stability in that troubled land; minimizing damage to American interests; and maintaining a credible legend of the war that is reassuring to the American people. That’s a tall order, and it isn’t clear whether the nearly 150,000 U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, under U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, can affect the magnitude of the challenge one way or another.
Very quietly, top officials of the Obama administration have initiated a number of reviews inspecting every aspect of this endgame challenge. Some involve influential outside experts with extensive governmental experience in past administrations, and they are working with officials at the highest levels of the government, including the Pentagon. One review group has sent members to Russia for extensive conversations with officials who were involved in the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Others have traveled to Pakistan and other lands, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France, to master the diplomatic implications of any Afghan exit strategy.
It’s too early to determine just what impact these review groups will have on administration thinking, which appears to remain in a state of development. But it can be said that at least some of these outside experts are pressing hard for an endgame approach that moves beyond some earlier thinking about the war and its rationale. For example:
* The need to involve Afghanistan’s neighbors in any accommodation that would allow for at least a reasonably graceful American exit. In addition to next-door Pakistan, these likely would include Russia, India and perhaps even Iran. All have a stake in Afghan stability, and all have their own particular interests there. Hence, the diplomatic game will be extremely difficult. But it is worth noting that during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Russia served as a facilitator of U.S. cooperation with the northern ethnic tribes, and Russians even provided personnel and vehicles to America’s Northern Alliance allies. Iran also helped facilitate the invasion by suggesting security for American pilots faced with ditching over Iranian territory.
* The necessity of working with local power centers and finding a way of developing a productive discussion with the different ethnic groups that need to be part of the Afghan endgame. How to do that reportedly was one question posed to Russian officials who were involved in the Soviet Union’s Afghan experience and who had to deal with insurgent leaders on the way out.
* A probable requirement that the United States relinquish any hope that a strong central government in Kabul will form and bring about stability in the country. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government, and the various ethnic and religious groups, local warlords, tribes and khans aren’t going to submit to any broad national authority. Their mountainous homeland for centuries has afforded them plenty of protection from any invading force, and that isn’t going to change.
* A probable need to explore a national system with a traditionally weak central government and strong provincial actors with considerable sway over their particular territories.
Underlying all this is a strong view that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force cannot impose an endgame. The Taliban are not going to submit to U.S. blandishments for negotiation as a result of any fear of what will happen to them if they don’t. That’s because they are winning and possess the arms, wiles, knowledge of terrain and people and insurgency skills to keep on winning, irrespective of what Petraeus does to thwart them. Besides, the tribes of Afghanistan have demonstrated through the centuries that they have the patience to outlast any invader.
If the Taliban won’t negotiate out of fear of what the U.S. military can do to them, the question becomes whether they will negotiate out of a sense of opportunity — as a means of bringing about the U.S. exit that American government officials increasingly seem to want as well. There are indications the Taliban might be interested in participating in such a negotiated American exit, perhaps in exchange for some kind of international recognition. At this point, however, there is no firm evidence that such an approach could prove fruitful, and hence this question remains one of the great imponderables hovering over America’s presence in Afghanistan.
But, if that does prove possible, the question of America’s war legend will loom very large indeed. Those involved in the review groups reportedly are well aware that the nature of the U.S. departure will inform the legend, and they are intent on crafting an outcome that will honor America’s Afghanistan war dead and U.S. war veterans. In other words, in this view, there must remain a narrative that explains why America was there, what was accomplished, and why the departure was undertaken when it was. It must resonate throughout the nation and must be credible.
This poses another fundamental question: Is there an inherent inconsistency between the outlook emerging from these governmental review groups and the recent pronouncements of Petraeus? Many of the review-group participants seem to be working toward what might be called a “graceful exit” from Afghanistan. Yet Petraeus told The New York Times on Aug. 15 that he does not see his mission in such small terms as a “graceful exit.” Rather, he said his marching orders were to do “all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives.” By “our objectives,” he seemed to mean establishing, through military force, a sufficient degree of stability in the country to allow a negotiated exit on American terms, with his Iraq record serving as the model. Even if that is possible, it certainly will take considerable time. The general made clear in the Times interview and in others that he fully intended to press Obama hard to delay any serious troop withdrawal from Afghanistan until well beyond the July 2011 time frame put forth by the president.
Thus, the nature and pace of withdrawal becomes another big question hovering over the president’s war strategy. Many high-ranking administration officials, including the president, have said the pace of withdrawal will depend upon “conditions on the ground” when July 2011 arrives. Obama repeated that conditional expression in his Iraq speech the other night. But that leaves a lot of room for maneuver — and a lot of room for debate within the administration. The reason for delaying a full withdrawal would be to try to apply further military pressure to force the Taliban to become less resistant. That goal seems to be what’s animating Petraeus. But others, including some involved in the review groups, don’t see much prospect of that actually happening. Thus, they see no reason for much of a withdrawal delay beyond the president’s July deadline — particularly given the need to preserve the country’s war legend. The danger, as some see it, is that an effort to force an outcome through military action, given the unlikely prospect of that, could increase the chances of a traditional military defeat, much like the one suffered by the Soviets in the 1980s and by the British in two brutal military debacles during the 19th century.
Many of the experts involved in the Afghanistan review effort see a link between the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, as described by Obama in his Oval Office speech, and the imperative to fashion an Afghanistan exit that offers a war legend at least as comforting to the American people. Certainly, the importance of the war legend was manifest in Obama’s Iraq speech. First, he repeatedly praised the valor and commitment of America’s men and women in uniform. Even in turning to the need to fix the country’s economic difficulties, he invoked these U.S. military personnel again by saying “we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.” He expressed a resolve to honor their commitment by serving “our veterans as well as they have served us” through the Department of Veterans Affairs, emphasizing medical care and the G.I. Bill. And he drew an evocative word picture of America’s final combat brigade in Iraq — the Army’s 4th Stryker Brigade — journeying toward Kuwait on their way home in the predawn darkness. Many Americans will recall some of these young men, extending themselves from the backs of convoy trucks and yelling into television cameras and lights, “We won! We’re going home! We won the war!”
But, as Obama noted in his speech, this is “an age without surrender ceremonies.” It’s also an age without victory parades. As he said, “we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation.” That’s a bit vague, though, and that’s why Obama’s speech laid out the elements of the Iraq success in terms that seemed pretty much identical to what George W. Bush would have said. We succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein. We nurtured an Iraqi effort to craft a democratic structure. After considerable bloodshed, we managed to foster a reasonable amount of civic stability in the country so the Iraqi people can continue their halting pursuit of their own destiny. Thus, said the president, “This completes a transition to Iraqi responsibility for their own security.” He added, “Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page.”
That’s probably enough of a legend to fortify the good feelings of those young men yelling of victory from the backs of Stryker Brigade vehicles on the way out of Iraq. But getting to even that degree of a war legend in Afghanistan will be far more difficult. And, as the endgame looms in that distant land, the administration will have to grapple not only with how to prosecute the war and foster a safe exit but also with how to preserve a suitable legend for that war once the shooting stops.