Bush Afghanistan Strategy 2.0?

In response to George Will’s call to “offshore” the Afghanistan War, Joshua Foust makes an argument that had been buzzing around in my brain, since it presents quite a challenge to those, like Will but also like myself, who argue for an end to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

The trouble is, this describes Afghanistan, circa 1998-2004 or so. Itdidn’t work. In fact, I’ll take it a step further and say it actuallymade us worse off: relying solely on drones and cruise missiles to workfor us, we demonstrated we cannot assemble the necessary intelligencefor effective air strikes from satellites or the Indian Ocean.

Spencer Ackerman makes a similar point, in reminding us that 1,500 miles — the length of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — is a whole lot of ground to keep an eye on from the sky. (It’s also a whole lot of ground to cover from the ground, too, but that’s another story.)

Foust’s point is well-taken, in that replaying the late-Clinton and early-Bush strategies towards Afghanistan and an al-Qaida presence there are unlikely to work any better the second time around.

But are those the only options for a post-withdrawal U.S. policy? Part of why the Bush strategy circa 2002-2004 didn’t work is that we did not actually devote the needed resources to training the Afghan army (instead relying on warlord militias), supporting governance or reconstruction. And the Clinton policy was essentially one of neglect.

Continuing the U.S. military training mission would already be more than the Bush administration was offering in the years preceding the Taliban resurgence, and it could be supplemented by limited logistical support and arms assistance. And given the urgency with which the Obama administration treats the South Asia region, it will certainly remain a diplomatic focus after a withdrawal, unlike during the Clinton years.

While that probably won’t be enough to defeat the Taliban, it might be enough to keep them from winning. And that’s as good as anything we can accomplish with our present commitment.

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