Over the Horizon: The Cost of Portraying Toughness in Afghanistan

Over the Horizon: The Cost of Portraying Toughness in Afghanistan

The Obama administration appears to be in the throes of yet another debate about the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. Inside the administration, officials are weighing not only the material costs of remaining in Afghanistan, but also the political and bureaucratic implications of continuing the war. Undoubtedly, some are asking the question, "What would a withdrawal from Afghanistan say about the United States?" Some might answer that a withdrawal would embolden America's enemies and indicate that the United States is both weak and unwilling to stand behind its friends. The late, esteemed George Kennan suggested another interpretation of such a withdrawal when he wrote, "There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives."

The question itself speaks to another one regarding the larger historical framework by which future generations will eventually come to understand the Afghanistan War: How did Afghanistan matter for America's strategic interests in the 21st century?

The reputational argument for continuing to prosecute strategically questionable wars runs as follows: If the United States demonstrates sufficient resolve by displaying a willingness to accept high costs, then potential enemies will be deterred from defying our will at some point in the future. By this logic, withdrawing from Afghanistan without "finishing the job" indicates to actual and potential enemies that we are weak and that we will back down when challenged if the costs of conflict are high. A parallel message is simultaneously received by friends: If we won't stick it out against the Taliban in Afghanistan, then why should the Israelis or Taiwanese believe that our promises are worth anything?

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