President Obama’s choice in Afghanistan is coming into clearer public focus: stay the course in a losing war with a flawed strategy, or properly resource the counterinsurgency campaign his commanding general says is necessary to turn the tide.
Obama told a bipartisan gathering of congressmen at the White House yesterday that he won’t be pulling out of Afghanistan to pursue a purely counterterrorist mission from afar. This shouldn’t be news: It was never a very realistic option, anyway, better suited to the op-ed pages than to realities on the ground. Pulling out would instantly hand the Taliban much of the south, likely cause the collapse of the Kabul government, and create a Hobbesian nightmare — a civil war and fleeing refugees — that would destabilize Pakistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal spoke the truth last week when he said the counterterrorism option would create “Chaos-stan,” and it’s some relief to know that the president agrees with him.
But not much. The talk of Obama’s rejecting a pullout shouldn’t skew the debate. Obama’s options aren’t really between a pullout on the one hand and McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops on the other. That would make current troop levels in pursuit of the current strategy the Solomonic middle option. His real choice is whether he’s going to give his commander what he believes he needs to succeed or find some fig leaf for the status quo.
Afghan war skeptics like to say we’ve been in Afghanistan for eight years and nothing has come of it. But Afghanistan seemed pacified until about 2006, when the Taliban began to reemerge with a vengeance. We didn’t have the troops or the right strategy to cope with it. The commanding general in Afghanistan whom Obama fired, Gen. David McKiernan, tried to kill enough enemy leaders to make a difference, to hold off the Taliban in an essentially defensive approach, and to train up the Afghan army to take on the fight. This tack was and is failing, just as it failed under Gen. George Casey in Iraq for years.
Democratic solons such as Sen. Carl Levin nonetheless want to duplicate that unworkable strategy, only with even more training of the Afghan army. But as we learned in Iraq, a national army will never be trained up quickly enough to cope with conditions that are deteriorating right now. It won’t matter if we can in theory train a few hundred thousand Afghan troops years from now, if Kandahar falls to the Taliban tomorrow. That is the prospect McChrystal faces, and he is only doing his duty when he conveys the urgency behind his request for more forces.
His request shouldn’t be finessed or bid down. It will be awfully tempting for Obama to cut McChrystal’s troop request in half and declare himself stalwart yet prudent. But this isn’t a negotiation in the Senate Finance Committee. If we are to pursue a proper counterinsurgency strategy and not just pay it lip service, McChrystal must have enough troops to achieve a decisive effect. Anything short of that is folly. Our troops will continue to make heartbreaking sacrifices — but without effect. In Iraq, we had troops patrolling Baghdad but couldn’t secure the city until we had enough forces to confront the enemy in Baghdad’s surrounding belts. With enough troops in Iraq, focused on a true counterinsurgency mission, we could squeeze al-Qaeda, the Sunni insurgents, and the Shia militia out of neighborhoods, then out of cities, then out of entire regions of the country, until they were isolated in a few areas and no longer a serious threat to the government of Iraq (or to our interests). That is what we have to repeat in places like Kandahar, and it can’t happen without sufficient forces.
Comparisons to Vietnam and LBJ inevitably are in the air. There are two lessons Obama should learn from Vietnam: Only a counterinsurgency campaign that secures the population can defeat a guerilla force, and half-measures, no matter how seductive in the political moment, will fail on the ground and waste domestic support for the war. In terms of President Bush and Iraq, Obama has two choices. He can be the Bush of 2005 and 2006, who stuck with a failing strategy despite all the evidence it wasn’t working. Or he can be the Bush of 2007 and 2008, who gave his commanders what they needed to succeed. Obama’s choice is a momentous one, but it shouldn’t be hard.