The Good War Goes Bad

History will judge the success of America’s military strategy in Afghanistan, but it is already possible to see that the political strategy is not going as planned.

The traditional media with the resources to cover Afghanistan have been content to mostly ignore it in recent years, and so have their war-weary readers and viewers, but the rioting, killings, and mass chaos that have occurred there since the burning of some Korans last week have unavoidably brought the troublesome country back to the public’s attention. The news media haven’t launched the same kind of defeatist blitzkrieg that attended similar setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan during a previous administration, but the coverage has been sufficient to create a political problem for President Barack Obama.

Most Americans will regard the incineration of the Korans as one of those unfortunate but forgivable episodes that occur in the course of every war, as the Korans in question had already been desecrated by prisoners using them to convey illicit communications and apparently were inadvertently destroyed, but the administration’s response to the incident will be more controversial. Rather than keeping quiet about an honest error that was almost certain to provoke rioting, killing, and mass chaos if it became public knowledge, which in retrospect seems a good idea, the administration apologetically announced it to the Afghan public. Critics have mostly objected to the numerous apologies offered by Obama and his emissaries, saying it conveys weakness to a culture that instinctively preys on the weak, and while the administration’s defenders can say the gesture showed cultural sensitivity they can’t convincingly argue that it worked.

Worse yet, for an administration already beset by a series of crises in an unraveling Middle East, the whole Afghanistan enterprise is being looked at anew by an increasingly skeptical electorate. A strategy that seemed carefully devised to offer something for everyone know seems to have something for everyone to dislike.

After becoming a nationally known political figure by his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, which endeared him to the bleeding heart peacenik crowd, candidate Obama sought to reassure more hawkish voters that he wasn’t one of those bleeding heart peacenik types by explaining that the Iraq war was bad because it distracted American efforts from the more righteous fight in Afghanistan. Even after winning the election Obama couldn’t resist using the argument when he announced a surge in Afghanistan similar to the one he’d criticized in Iraq, saying it was necessary “to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” Simultaneous with the announcement of a surge, Obama announced a timetable for withdrawal, which was widely criticized as a military tactic but had a strange plausibility as a political tactic to appease both hawks and doves.

For a while it even worked. Congressional Republicans and the right in general were mostly on board with the surge, if only for fear of being called partisan and inconsistent if they objected. Congressional Democrats and the left in general were mostly willing to keep mum and await the promised pre-election withdrawal, with no apparent fear of being considered partisan and inconsistent. The mushy middle was happy to forget about Afghanistan, and the media were willing to let them do so. To the extent that Afghanistan had any effect on Obama’s approval numbers, it was probably to his slight benefit.

After a week of horrifying headlines, though, the plan is unraveling. Even the most enthusiastic right wing warmongers don’t see a point in fighting if it’s not to win, and an early withdrawal would leave them wondering why he had sent so many troops in the first place. The anti-war left will be angry if the withdrawal isn’t hastened, no matter how many apologies are issued. The mushy middle will have to hear about it, too, because the media can’t ignore it.

— Bud Norman

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