Defining Afghanistan Down

The president’s new strategy will include a new view of what’s possible.

What will Afghanistan look like when American troops leave? President Obama will have to answer that question in the coming weeks at the same time he announces whether he’ll be sending new troops into the fight. The answer will help define success for the military—and it’s also key to selling Obama’s new strategy to the public.

Obama probably will manage expectations by setting them very low. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that no one should expect Afghanistan to be a paradise. That’s an understatement of an understatement, given the level of government corruption and widespread instability. The country likely to emerge from U.S. occupation may well look like Bangladesh. Once described by Kissinger as an international basket case, it is now stable enough to keep from collapsing and is run by a government working to keep terrorists from setting up camps. (From basket case to best case!)

George Bush talked of creating flowering democracies in the heart of the Middle East. During the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deeper the commitment, the larger Bush’s promises grew that once conflict ended, the country now at peace would lead a pleasant domino effect. Democracy and liberalism would spread quickly throughout the region. As Bush said on the eve of the Iraq war: “A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions.”

Barack Obama came into office with a more realist view of the relationship between the democratic process and free societies. “Elections aren’t democracy, as we understand it,” Obama told the Washington Post on the eve of his inauguration.

With experience, President Obama has had to whittle that realism down further. “The definition of what’s possible in Afghanistan narrowed in March and it’s going to narrow again,” says a senior Pentagon official, referring to Obama’s last big policy announcement on Afghanistan in March.

How can the president justify new troops while refusing to oversell the good they can do? Obama is likely to pitch a vision of Afghanistan like the one John Kerry offered in his recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Achieving our goals, my friends, does not require us to build a flawless democracy. It doesn’t require us to defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy. What we’re talking about is ‘good enough’ governance, basic sustainable development, and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces. ”

So while everyone agrees that it’s crucial for U.S. goals for the Afghan government to function, that’s about where ambition stops. Anything better would be nice but not necessary. Afghanistan is 176th out of 180 on corruption perceptions Index. The Obama administration is not seeking to put it in the top half. (Bangladesh is ranked at 147. Another marker of good enough.)

If the president doesn’t decide to send tens of thousands of new troops, defining Afghanistan down helps explain why it’s OK to send the limited number. If he decides to send no more troops, or a number closer to the low end of the range he’s considering (say 10,000 to 15,000), lowering expectations will be necessary so that it won’t look like he’s underestimated the resources needed to do the job. That’s been Obama’s consistent claim about the Bush war effort. By contrast, he’ll be able to argue that he didn’t fail to remake Afghanistan because he didn’t send enough troops, because he never promised a makeover.

If the president commits to a number toward the middle of his commander’s request (40,000 troops) then he will be committing to a solid counterinsurgency campaign. In that case, he’ll need to lower expectations about the nature of Afghanistan to make it clear that he has not just committed the country to a new endless engagement that includes a flourishing society. “Counterinsurgency has become synonymous with nation building,” says a senior Pentagon official. “We have to change that.” One way is to redefine the kind of nation that’s being built.