The summer of 2010 found most of the US wilting from a blistering heat wave and the Obama Administration withering from bad news about Afghanistan. Writing in Rolling Stone Michael Hastings concludes: "There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word 'victory' when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible."
Reading these sobering articles I was reminded of the advice proffered by a seasoned Silicon Valley software developer: "good projects may go bad, but bad projects almost never get better." A few examples: No matter how much money Microsoft pours into "Windows Mobile," they're unlikely to capture significant market share. No matter how many coaches give him a try, Terrell Owens isn't going to become a team player. No matter how many movies she makes, Jennifer Aniston isn't going to win an Oscar. No matter how many speeches she gives, Sarah Palin isn't going to acquire wisdom. And, no matter how many billions the US spends, the situation in Afghanistan isn't going to improve.
Why do decision makers stick with bad projects? It's easy to write this off as human nature, as the same twisted logic that keeps battered women living with their abusive partners: the alternative is a fearful unknown. But the reasons are more complex. In Silicon Valley it's often difficult to kill losing efforts because the people who initially authorized the project and received a series of disappointing status reports are reluctant to admit they made a mistake. And, no matter how feeble their efforts, Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Palin make money for their sponsors. Inexplicably, Terrell Owens has fan appeal.
While there is a growing list of reasons for the US to leave Afghanistan - the Afghans don't want us there, the government of Hamid Karzai is fatally corrupt, despite our best efforts the Taliban are gaining support, our so-called ally Pakistan is secretly funding our enemies - there are important reasons to stay. The one most frequently used by the Obama Administration is that the 9/11 attacks were planned in Al Qaida bases located in Afghanistan and we need to eliminate this threat. But, in the face of mounting costs is this sufficient?
In his December 1, 2009, speech defining his Afghanistan policy, President Obama searched for middle political ground. Conservatives wanted the President to commit to being in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to root out Al Qaida and the Taliban. Liberals, arguing that the US needed to redirect its priorities, wanted our troops withdrawn immediately. President Obama chose a third path: "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests," by sending 30 thousand more troops, expending an additional $30 billion, and setting a withdrawal deadline of July 2011.
Obama didn't specify a Plan B, in the event his Afghanistan policy failed, but he did leave us with three metrics by which to measure the success of his Plan A. "First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months." This doesn't appear to be happening. Michael Hastings' ROLLING STONE article contained numerous military opinions that the US is losing the war (and resulted in Obama's firing his top Afghanistan commander, Stanley McChrystal).
"Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security." But our partners are bailing and there are vast areas of the country that are in the control of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai, the ostensible President of Afghanistan is actually the Mayor of Kabul, as his influence does not extend outside the capitol.
"Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan." Perhaps the Obama Administration has forged a new relationship with Pakistan. However, the avalanche of military documents released on July 25th by WikiLeaks contains numerous indications of the treacherous relationship between Pakistani security officials and the Taliban. And Michael Hastings' article describes a huge rift in the Obama Administration, not merely between the Pentagon and the State Department, but also between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US effort in Afghanistan has become a failed project. We may follow Obama's plan and tough it out for another 11 months, but there's no reason to expect the situation to improve. We should cut our losses now; go to plan B.
Unfortunately, the US doesn't have a plan B. Microsoft may bail out of the cell phone market but they still have other green software pastures. Jennifer Aniston may quit making movies but she'll still be in demand for commercials. Terrell Owens and Sarah Palin will graduate to talk radio. Battered women sometimes leave their abusive husbands and check into shelters. But there's no refuge for the US. Other than the truth.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.