Last week's vice-presidential debate left me admiring Paul Ryan on many counts, but his understanding of the Afghan war wasn’t one of them. He seemed a bit confused explaining what the Afghan “fighting season” was and how the drawdown of troops had been timed to account for the fact that the winter is a slow time for the insurgents. OK, he’s a congressman used to dealing with domestic economic issues, and he’s not running for the Commander in Chief post. But from a larger perspective, Ryan shares a lamentable Republican unwillingness to admit that the game is up in Afghanistan.
While Biden correctly, if obnoxiously, hammered home the message that it is Afghan troops’ job to defend Afghanistan, Ryan kept returning to the tiresome bogeymen, the return of al-Qaeda (which, by the way, is doing just fine in Libya, where life is a lot easier and more pleasant, what with the beaches and all). Again and again Ryan implied that we are leaving Afghanistan prematurely—although only 21 percent of the American public think we ought to have an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan.
This is part of the Republican repetition complex with respect to Afghanistan. The official line has never acknowledged that counterinsurgency, with its emphasis on large numbers of troops providing “security,” hasn’t worked in Afghanistan and may not have worked in Iraq either. (Colonel Gian Gentile is the most articulate proponent of the view that to the extent the Iraqi insurgency was vanquished, it was not due to an increase in American troop levels or their embedding in the local population.) If you are able to let go of the fixation on counterinsurgency, you can also let go of the idea that large numbers of troops are the answer. Indeed, I’ve argued both in World Affairs and elsewhere that, after a point, large numbers of troops are themselves the problem, serving as an irritant that draws violence:
Consider the same analogy in community policing. As the “broken windows theory” that led to New York’s turnaround suggests, communities need a certain level of police presence. But few of us would argue that doubling the current level of cops in New York would make the city safer or a better place to live. Still less would increasing their number tenfold.
The American military brass has committed intellectual suicide on this point, with very few voices speaking against troop increases even as empirical evidence suggested they just don’t work.
I’m not sure why Republicans are so stubborn on this point—it is not as though they need to be the party of endless war. There are different models for conservatives that support a strong defense while maintaining healthy skepticism about foreign entanglements—President Eisenhower, for instance. Yes to defending freedom, and a double yes to defending freedom through soft power, like cutting off dictators’ financial tools. But it’s time for Republicans to stop defending doctrines that haven’t worked, and focus on achieving results. We seem to be able to do this in domestic policy—so why not abroad?