Last night, as he announced his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, President Obama put a comforting spin on the war's mixed results and dicey future: We may not be winning, but al-Qaida is losing.
That isn't positive spin. It's negative. It focuses not on what's going well, but what isn't. War is full of pain, loss, and insecurity. If you expect safety and victory, particularly against terrorists, you'll be disappointed. But you can achieve the opposite. You can inflict pain, loss, and insecurity on the enemy. These limited objectives won't make you safe. But they'll make you safer.
Ten years ago, when President Bush addressed Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he announced the creation of the Office of Homeland Security. But he also targeted al-Qaida's security abroad. "We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest," he said. "And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism."
Two years ago, when Obama announced his troop surge into Afghanistan, he repeated this formula. The first goal of the surge, he declared, was to "deny al-Qaida a safe haven."
The positive mission Obama undertook in that 2009 speech—to "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future"—hasn't been completed. It may never fully succeed. So the negative mission has become central. "The goal that we seek is achievable," Obama told Americans last night. "No safe haven from which al-Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government."
In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials hammered this message, using the phrase "safe haven" 21 times. The great achievement of U.S. military and counterterrorism operations, they argued, was not safety, but lack thereof. In Pakistan, they pointed out, the "degradation of al Qaeda's capabilities has also been accompanied by a very unsafe environment within Waziristan." In Afghanistan, they added,
[T]he surge was very much focused on particular areas in the Taliban heartland in two key provinces in the south of Afghanistan—Helmand and Kandahar—and it's there that we've actually seen the most progress on the security front on the ground. These are areas that were longstanding, multiple-year safe havens for the Taliban inside Afghanistan, and today those areas are controlled by either NATO forces … or, in some cases, already by Afghan security forces. In any event, they're not controlled by the Taliban. So former safe havens are no longer there in the south.
Note that on this view, "progress on the security front" is defined not necessarily by NATO or Afghan government control, but by lack of Taliban control. Our security lies in their insecurity. We're safe when they aren't.
In his speech, Obama defined America's strength by al-Qaida's weakness:
We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al-Qaida is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al-Qaida's leadership. … The information that we recovered from bin Laden's compound shows al-Qaida under enormous strain. Bin Laden expressed concern that al-Qaida has been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that have been killed, and that al-Qaida has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam, thereby draining more widespread support.
Pressure, strain, unable, failed, draining. Like the husband who comes home from a bar fight with a black eye, Obama has a consoling story to tell: I may look bad, but you should see the other guy.
We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years. We've lost 1,500 lives. The government we've tried to nurture there is corrupt, unstable, and unable to secure large parts of the country. If we hold out for safety and security, we'll fail, because the easiest thing to do in war, as our enemies proved on 9/11, is to take security away. Fortunately, we can do the same to them. And we don't need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan to do it.