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?’”
Keane says our leaders need to take the time to explain not only the complex nature of irregular warfare, but also the progress we’re making. “The American people are willing to listen,” he says. “We have to say: Here’s our strategy, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Some of it won’t be so happy-to-glad. It will be very sobering. In certain areas, there won’t be satisfactory progress for some time.”
Explaining an irregular war’s progress involves using some measures that may seem odd to those used to conventional wars. “In Iraq, remember, the number-one definition of progress was a reduction in the level of violence,” says Keane. “The counter-offensive and surge were able to dramatically reduce violence and bring a back a normalcy of life to the people — getting people back to their jobs, restarting normal commerce, etc.”
The public needs benchmarks for progress in Afghanistan, as well. “If all the American people see are casualties,” says Keane, “then they have every right to question the war.”
Should President Obama choose to make a case for a new strategy in Afghanistan, he may decide to let McChrystal come to the Hill to testify, much as Bush invited Petraeus to Washington to explain the Iraq surge. It’s an idea that is gaining steam among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Keane says such a gambit may yield new support, but he has misgivings.
“While it may have been somewhat more compelling for General Petraeus to testify on Iraq during 2007 — because the administration at the time had lost all credibility on the war — clearly, that is not the case [with] Afghanistan,” says Keane. “It appears more appropriate for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and/or General Petraeus to do so in order to avoid bringing a battlefield commander back to Washington at a critical time.”
Ultimately, Keane says, the war in Afghanistan won’t be saved by taking Capitol Hill. What is required, says Keane, is the president’s decision to add more forces to the region. We need “enough troops to be able to protect the population as well as kill and capture the insurgents,” says Keane. “The obvious group that needs more people is the Afghan National Security Force. Overall, there is a genuine consensus that forces will have to grow to 400,000, a figure which includes both the police and military. That number may only be possible, at the earliest, by 2013 or 2012. The problem is that that’s an ambitious schedule, and we still don’t have enough troops to have an effective counterinsurgency strategy, which, at its heart, is protecting the people.”
In particular, we need to protect the population in currently contested areas. “The enemy will seize on that weakness,” Keane says. “We can’t afford that. The only way to fix the situation is to increase [the U.S. share of NATO forces in the theater]. The problem is that non-U.S. NATO forces are at their political limits in what they can provide. Sure, they may be able to provide more trainers, but probably not any substantial increase in combat forces. Therefore, by default, there has to be more U.S. forces.”
Of course, this comes at the expense of multilateralism. “Make no mistake,” says Keane. “We are ‘Americanizing’ the war. That’s just the reality. We need those new forces because we can’t wait till 2012 or 2013 when the Afghan National Security Force can have a real impact.”
Once security has been established in the country — but not before then — our efforts can focus more on goals such as improving government affairs, reconstruction, reducing corruption, and cracking down on narcotics and opium, Keane says.
America also has a larger role to play in the Afghan region, he adds. “We have to draw back and look at Pakistan,” a country that’s “inextricably linked” with Afghanistan, says Keane. “This is a country of strategic significance, and it’s a major problem that we have to deal with. Why? They don’t believe us when we say that we will stay and stick to our goals in the region. That’s the elephant in the room when dealing with Pakistan, with both its political and military leaders. They point to evidence from the past where we haven’t followed through that undercuts what we’re trying to do now.”
And what about George Will’s ”shoot from afar” strategy? “It speaks from a frame of reference of ignorance,” says Keane. “Reaching for a technological solution, when the war is fundamentally about people, is a mistake. There is no such thing as a ‘drone solution’ or ‘missile solution’ in Afghanistan.”
Keane believes that if the Obama administration adopts the right strategies — by increasing troop levels, protecting the population, convincing insurgent factions to give up and join the political process, and explaining the progress made to the American people — the war is winnable. For President Obama, Keane’s advice may come at an inopportune time. The commander-in-chief is busy with health care, Iran, and the Olympics. But Afghanistan deserves his attention, and he can’t abandon it after eight years’ worth of U.S. efforts.
— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.