Ever since Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s memo leaked to the Washington Post on September 21, President Obama has had the yips on Afghanistan. McChrystal, the head of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, is calling for a “properly resourced” counterinsurgency campaign. Most analysts say he will soon request 40,000 more troops. For now, no one is sure whether the president will give the general what he needs. Yesterday, the president reviewed his Afghan strategy with key advisers, including McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The White House says that any public decision is weeks away.
The situation reminds one of the war in Iraq two years ago. In 2007, American forces needed a hand, and Pres. George W. Bush gave it to them. His decision then to “surge” troop levels by 30,000 was met with criticism, but thanks to McChrystal’s current boss, Gen. David Petraeus, and the sacrifices made by our troops, it worked.
Instead of listening to the Boomers cautioning him against becoming immersed in another Vietnam — Joe Biden, John Kerry, the list goes on and on — Obama should seek guidance from the architects of the 2007 surge. One such architect is Gen. John M. “Jack” Keane, a former four-star general and onetime vice chief of staff of the Army. Keane participated in a late-2006 strategy meeting at the White House, and soon thereafter, along with American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick W. Kagan, authored an op-ed in the Washington Post. The piece argued that the “key to the success” in Iraq was to “change the military mission — instead of preparing for transition to Iraqi control, that mission should be to bring security to the Iraqi population. Surges aimed at accelerating the training of Iraqi forces will fail, because rising sectarian violence will destroy Iraq before the new forces can bring it under control.”
The Kagan-Keane approach was vindicated in Iraq, so we thought we would — because President Obama probably won’t — check in with General Keane about the controversy over the military strategy in Afghanistan. Keane now works as a security analyst for ABC News and a senior managing director at a private-equity firm he co-founded. He also serves on the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board.
“What surprised me about General McChrystal’s memo was its description of the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan and its timeline recommendation. . . . It says that we have a year to start to turn this around, and that if we don’t, success may not be possible,” Keane says. “What General McChrystal is saying in the report is that we don’t have much operational time to waste. I take that assessment at face value. His report is comprehensive in how it looks at the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan.”
Keane is particularly impressed with the memo’s identification of specific enemy factions. “We need to stop talking in general terms about the enemy in Afghanistan. That’s what got us into so much trouble in Iraq,” he says. “Once you understand the nature and character of the opposition we’re facing, only then can you put together a realistic strategy to deal with them.”
Keane says another surprising, but accurate, aspect of the McChrystal memo is the way in which it describes the multiple challenges facing the United States. “It was gripping to read how he describes the two major threats,” says Keane. “He not only outlines the Taliban threat, but he looks at the problems with the current government in Afghanistan.”
However, one of the problems with “irregular wars” is that while fighting one, it’s hard to tell how much progress you’ve made. “In conventional warfare, there is a clear objective, such as taking Sicily and moving up the boot of Italy week-by-week,” Keane says. By contrast, “in irregular warfare, the center of gravity in the conflict is full of ambiguity and operates in a gray area all of the time.”
And when there’s no evidence of progress, public opinion deteriorates, and as a result the administration faces immense pressure to avoid a protracted conflict. Keane says the lack of visible progress is the main reason support for the war in Afghanistan is declining. “When the American people look at Afghanistan, they know that we are the premier military in the world,” Keane points out. “They say, ‘why not just send in our best people and get this thing over with?’ They compare their knowledge of our strength to the powerful narrative that they see on television, a narrative that only gives them a general sense of what’s happening on the ground. The American people turn on the news and see the enemy carrying around rifles, blowing up vehicles, and looking disheveled. They wonder, ‘what’s the problem here?’”