The dominant political assessment in the United States of the future of the Afghanistan war is undergoing a significant shift. The nature of the change is suggested by the contrast with the atmospherics of the presidential election campaign of 2008. At that time, a clear division emerged between the two candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, over attitudes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The view of John McCain, the Republican Party candidate, was that the Iraq war was being won (the continuing violence there notwithstanding), in great part thanks to the military “surge” in American troop-numbers from 2007; and that in Afghanistan a similar strategy would lead to a comprehensive defeat of the Taliban. The political implication was that a McCain victory in the election would complete the triumph of the two wars begun by George W Bush, and regain the momentum needed to build the “new American century”.
The view of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party candidate, involved making a distinction between the two campaigns. Iraq was, in effect, the “bad war” - wrong in conception, disastrous in execution - which left the only honourable option a progressive US withdrawal within the first term of a new administration. Afghanistan was the “good war”, justified in its origin by the Taliban’s supporting role in the 9/11 attacks and demanding a continued commitment to see it through.
The time to leave
In the event, it was Barack Obama who had to carry the military responsibility of political victory. A few months into office, his administration was facing a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and - after a lengthy process of internal consultation - took the decision to expand the war, in two ways.
The first involved granting substantial additional assistance to the Pakistani army and its frontier-corps, which involved putting aside suspicions of a close connection between Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and militant Islamists fighting against the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Obama administration also decided markedly to increase the use of armed-drones, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (see "Washington vs Waziristan: the far enemy", 14 May 2010).
The second element of the war's expansion was a massive surge in US forces in Afghanistan. This was the policy advocated by John McCain, though Obama gave it a subtle yet profound twist: for the purpose of the extra forces was not to seek outright victory but to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
An issue that has been central to the Obama administration’s evolving calculations regarding Afghanistan is that of the timescale - of victory, negotiation, or withdrawal. In this respect there has been a striking change since 2007, when an assessment circulating both in Washington and London was that the western military coalition might need to maintain a major military presence in Afghanistan until around 2017-22. The expectation was that an extended if low-level insurgency would have to be patiently countered before stability was achieved.
Three years on, the schedule for the foreign forces is looking much more short-term. The Dutch and Canadian contingents will be withdrawn in 2010-11 after a decision by their respective governments. Now, Britain’s prime minister David Cameron has in quick succession talked of an evacuation of British forces by 2015, then by 2014, and then of troop withdrawals beginning in 2011; and the mood-music for the drawdown of the US’s very much larger force is beginning to sound similar (see David E Sanger, "Afghan deadline is cutting two ways", New York Times, 21 July 2010).
The accelerating trend towards military withdrawal is reflected in the the announcement made at the international summit in Kabul on 20 July 2010 that the coalition forces plan to transfer complete responsibility for security and budgeting to the Afghan government by 2014 (see Alissa J. Rubin et al, “Leaders Renew Vows of Support for Afghanistan”, New York Times, 21 July 2010).
The United States military could continue to maintain its three large bases in Afghanistan (at Bagram, Kandahar and Herat) as well as at other locations in central Asia. It is still possible too that there will be some negotiations with the Taliban in the next three years to finesse the larger withdrawal (though this is far from certain, given the movement’s current position of strength; more likely is that the Taliban will wait to take over Kandahar, Helmand and other southern provinces and then decide whether to settle for a weak coalition in a devolved government, or seek greater control across the country). In any event, the implication of the coalition’s new “timetabling” considerations is that the Afghanistan war is going to be brought to an end, come what may.
The forgotten conflict
The developing stance of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan is echoed by developments in Iraq. The US forces withdrew from Iraqi cities on 30 June 2009 and handed over authority for security to the Iraqi authorities; in the country as a whole, their numbers have been reduced from almost 200,000 in 2007 to below 100,000 today.
The situation in Iraq now attracts far less western media attention, major incidents apart, than hitherto; but the country is anything but peaceful (see Patrick Cockburn, “America lowers the flag: Iraq's unquiet peace”, Independent, 19 July 2010). Around 100 people are dying in Iraq and hundreds more are being seriously injured each week (despite the around 1,500 checkpoints around Baghdad which restrict movement across the city); very few of the nearly 4 million Iraqis displaced by the war (including the 1 million-plus refugees) have been able to return home; and after the elections of March 2010, a new government has still not been formed.
These current realities offer no reason to challenge the assessment that the invasion and occupation of Iraq were a disaster from the beginning. The trends of war in Afghanistan mean that the coalition forces more and more resemble their Red Army predecessors in 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s government in Moscow was beginning to plan for withdrawal.
The third war
The damage presented by Afghanistan and Iraq, considered together or separately, to the Barack Obama administration could yet be containable in narrow political terms. But what could present it with the most acute difficulty is the emergence of a third theatre of war, over Iran and its presumed nuclear ambitions. Obama himself might want to avoid the United States become embroiled in any such conflict, but he is now under severe domestic political pressure as the mid-term congressional elections in November 2010 approach; and Republican circles are increasingly promoting the notion that the US should seek a military solution to the Iran problem - or at least encourage the Israelis to do so (see “Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war”, 15 July 2010).
The idea that an attack on Iran is desirable is found most regularly in neo-conservative circles (see Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Should Israel Bomb Iran: Better Safe than Sorry”, Weekly Standard, 26 July 2010). But arguments for the military option are also found in more centrist military and diplomatic thinking, as portrayed by the well-informed Joe Klein (see “An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table”, Time, 15 July 2010). Meanwhile, an experienced former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurzer, takes the view that Israel is more likely to start a conflict with Hizbollah than the other way round (see Jim Lobe, “Israel's Next War Could Be Lebanon”, TerraViva/IPS, 20 July 2010).
The prospect here is of a drift towards war with Iran that could entangle the Barack Obama administration. A war is not inevitable, but a situation of escalating tension means that it could be triggered by accident, misjudgment, or inadvertence - perhaps after an incident in the Persian gulf or on the Israel-Lebanon border.
If the decade’s third major war does erupt over Iran in 2010-11, this will be a yet further victory for the “control paradigm” that has brought so much suffering, anguish and conflict since 9/11 (see "America and the world's jungle", 27 May 2010). The effects will be so calamitous that a move away from this model and towards a more enlightened outlook rooted in the idea of “sustainable security” will become conceivable only much later in the 2010s. But if war with Iran can be avoided over the next eighteen months, and if Barack Obama is re-elected in November 2012, the possibility of a progressive United States security strategy might - just - remain alive. The stakes could scarcely be higher.