Following President Obama’s Afghanistan speech at West Point on Tuesday, my organization — Vets for Freedom — issued a statement of support for the president’s troop increase, but I waited on a personal statement. The speech seemed mediocre and generally uninspiring, but I wanted to give the underlying plan time to sink in. Since then, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with that plan: 30,000 additional troops, plus NATO inputs, is close to General Stanley McChrystal’s request, and follow-up testimony by Secretary Gates revealed that the July 2011 “date certain for withdrawal” is not so certain after all.
I am hesitant about President Obama’s core commitment to the mission, but he showed true political courage in almost tripling the U.S. presence in Afghanistan since January. And most important, Gens. McChrystal and David Petraeus — who conducted the successful Iraq surge and will lead our renewed fight in Afghanistan — enthusiastically support the plan and believe they can achieve significant progress with the new resources. Generals have not always been right, but these two men are our most experienced warriors and helped the U.S. win a similar war against a similar enemy.
Some say we don’t know what a “win” would look like in Afghanistan, but we do: It will look like Iraq. Afghanistan and Iraq are very different places, with very different dynamics — but the foundations for success in each place are the same.
Iraq is still in physical disrepair, but it has become an increasingly stable state in which indigenous security forces control the ground and America’s enemies are denied haven. Nobody knows more about what it will take to succeed in Afghanistan than the men behind the Iraq victory.
So why do those men support the new plan? I believe it’s because on balance, the president listened to them, and not to political advisers such as Vice President Biden and Rahm Emanuel. Yes, the president delayed his decision, but he’s now rushing troops to the front. Yes, the president set a tentative timeline, but he is allowing Secretary Gates and General McChrystal to reassure our allies and the Afghan people that it’s tentative. And yes, the president continues to bad-mouth the legacy of Iraq (which infuriates Iraq veterans), but his decision is evidence that he’s actually learned the right lessons from that war’s surge.
On Friday, NRO’s Andy McCarthy challenged the plan. According to McCarthy, counterinsurgency is nothing more than glorified nation-building, and under General McChrystal, our troops will not be given the full opportunity to execute their core competency — because McChrystal’s approach is “not focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces.”
McCarthy’s argument confuses focus with results. It’s true that counterinsurgency doesn’t “focus” on terrain capture and insurgent kills, but it reaps significant results in those areas. Our experience in Iraq illustrates this point.
Before the surge, U.S. strategy in Iraq could be summarized as “a focus on seizing terrain and destroying insurgency forces.” I spent my 2005–2006 tour in Iraq trying to do just that, to little lasting effect. We killed pockets of bad guys without actually holding the ground, and then fought the regenerated insurgency over and over again. Our approach lacked the coherence, coordination, and sustainability necessary to translate local successes into strategic victory.