The White House five-page summary review of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is decidedly delphic, if not downright opaque. Nonetheless, on December 16, President Obama concluded that “the strategy is showing progress.” That is certainly true in the south, the heartland of the Taliban movement. Obama also said he had agreed with Afghan officials to “complete transition by the end of 2014, after which the U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan’s development and security.”
This deadline is a victory for General Petraeus, the military complex, and our national security. In 2009, Obama had declared his strategy was “not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building,” while General Petraeus insisted his strategy was “comprehensive military-civilian counterinsurgency.” Guess who just won?
In 2009, White House functionaries leaked to favored journalists how the president had dressed down the generals in “a white-hot fury.” The Pentagon would not maneuver him into a long-term war in Afghanistan, Obama declared: “I’m not doing ten years … I’m not doing long-term nation-building.” But that is precisely what he has approved in the strategy.
If he is reelected, 2014 will mark the sixth year of Obama’s war. On the face of it, Obama appears as committed to prevailing in Afghanistan as Pres. George W. Bush was in Iraq, where six years did produce semi-successful nation-building (although sectarian Prime Minister Nuri Maliki seems determined to emerge as another Mubarak).
If the president and Congress support the Afghan strategy at the current levels for another four years, we will prevail. Petraeus is the seventh American commanding general in Afghanistan. Each had a different strategy. After he leaves, there will be other successors. On one level, that’s like a professional football team constantly changing coaches. On the other hand, if your players weigh 300 pounds and hit like bulldozers, even confused strategies will result in victory.
I personally have grave reservations about the premises of our current counterinsurgency strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine states that “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as war-fighters.” In the pursuit of nation-building, our battalions are wasting time and ignoring the enemy. Some counterinsurgency theorists argue that our soldiers should confront the Taliban “only when they get in the way.” Such nutty theories cause too many military leaders to coddle the Pashtun elders, giving them billions of dollars in a vain hope to buy their allegiance against the Taliban, who are their cousins. Based on their behavior over the past ten years, most Pashtuns will remain resolutely neutral until they decide whether the Afghan government or the Taliban is going to win.
But regardless of inefficiencies and the diversion of effort, our advantages remain staggering. No Taliban gang can persist in the attack without being seen and destroyed from the air. Our troops are resolute and have the momentum. We began the war by invading Afghanistan in 2001. In 2014 — after 15 years of war, a trillion dollars, thousands of casualties and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of troops — if we have not prevailed, then we don’t deserve to win.
This war turns on whether the Afghan army and police can beat the Taliban. Can we infuse the Afghan forces with a winning spirit, so that they cease being afraid of the Taliban? Absolutely, and to hasten the process, we should deploy a professional adviser corps in the next year or so.
Obama did warn that there “must be more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries.” Because the Pakistani military will not control the tribal regions along the 1,500-mile border, Obama is signaling an increase in bombing. But as we learned from the bombings of Cambodia and Laos in the ’60s, only ground troops can root out insurgents from a sanctuary. It would be an enormous help to the war effort if the president allowed Generals Petraeus and Mattis (the CentCom commander) to launch strong ground raids with no public acknowledgment. U.S. intelligence and fire support along the border will be needed long after 2014, but that can be arranged.
Karzai’s erratic behavior is more disturbing than the Pakistani sanctuary; he is not a reliable strategic partner. For good reasons, he distrusts Americans and seems bent on cutting some murky deal with the Taliban. That is a diplomatic challenge of the first order for whichever diplomat replaces the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who died of a heart attack last week.
In short, I concluded from the review that Obama has signed on as being committed to a four-year war. That’s devastating news to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda, disturbing news to feckless Pakistani and Afghan leaders, and terrific news for America’s security.
— Bing West is author of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.