Politics & Policy

Back to Afghanistan

Prudent adaptability and the raw will to win remain vital ingredients of a successful military effort.

Barack Obama’s weekend trip to Afghanistan illustrates how both presidential candidates are shifting focus now that Operation Iraqi Freedom looks like it will succeed.

Indeed, Operation Enduring Freedom — the war in Afghanistan — needs extra attention. On the positive side, our troops have prevented another attack on our homeland for six years by punishing al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and keeping their top leadership on the run.

However, recent attack statistics reveal a deteriorating security situation. While more attacks generally occur in spring after harsh Afghan winters, the latest trend is more pronounced and appears more sustainable, as Islamic extremists shift their emphasis from Iraq. Both General Petraeus and Afghan president Hamid Karzai have conveyed severally that al-Qaeda seems to understand that it will not succeed in Iraq, and has been redirecting operatives and resources to Afghanistan.

Success against al-Qaeda in Iraq is making the mission in Afghanistan more difficult. This continual ebb and flow is a hallmark of modern counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts, which is why adaptability and the will to win remain vital ingredients of a successful national effort.

Over the next six months, President Bush will likely empower General Petraeus, as commander of U.S. Central Command, to apply to Afghanistan the counterinsurgency principles that have worked in Iraq. Soon enough, though, the next commander-in-chief will be in charge of the fight — and he will need first to lead with the will to win and second to exercise the wartime judgment that can adapt to a dynamic insurgency.

On the first point, both presidential hopefuls have made statements expressing the need to win in Afghanistan — a positive sign, as far as speeches go. Each has expressed his support for additional troops to contend with Afghanistan’s porous borders, challenging terrain, and dispersed population. There is little doubt that McCain has the will to back up his rhetoric; but Obama’s dedication to the task remains in doubt, especially if things were to get tough and public support were to wane, as it did in Iraq in 2006. Today, Obama speaks as if a surge in Afghanistan were his own idea. (Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain ally, deserves credit for that.) But if public opinion were to turn against an Afghan surge, it is easy to imagine Obama pulling the plug on the operation before the mission was completed. One can almost anticipate the familiar rhetorical moves: He could blame his favorite pincushion, President Bush — but also General Petraeus, the man behind the very success in Iraq that Obama refuses to acknowledge.

On the second issue, Senator Obama claims better wartime judgment because he, as a state legislator on the South Side of Chicago, opposed the Iraq War from the start — as did the overwhelming percentage of his constituents (hardly a profile in courage). In January 2007, Senator Obama said the surge would worsen security in Iraq, and unveiled a plan to withdraw all forces by March 2008. Had we followed Obama’s wartime plan, Iraq would be in chaos and the U.S. would be tearing itself apart arguing over how we could have lost a war without losing a decisive battle — Vietnam all over again. Worse, Al Qaeda would have achieved two strategic goals: defeating the U.S., and establishing a new base of operations from which to plan, finance, and train for a new wave of 9/11-style terror attacks.

In sharp contrast with Obama’s wartime judgment, Senator McCain called for the new, effective approach in Iraq a full year before even his own party supported the idea. McCain faced broad criticism when he first called for a new strategy — yet he held firm in his conviction that we must adapt to today’s insurgencies, and eventually brought others along to his way of thinking.

Obama, however, remains fixed in a rigid, ideological opposition to Iraq. It is one thing to say the war was unnecessary, but he refuses to even acknowledge the undeniable security and political gains of the last year. That rigidity may have served him well in a campaign primary decided by left-leaning Democrats, but it will serve poorly a wartime commander-in-chief facing a dynamic counter-insurgency — and will serve poorly America and her troops.

It is OK to disagree with starting a war; but once you’re in it, you need to recognize that America’s interest extends beyond your own inclinations or that of a narrow political base. I served as a weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence officer from 2001-02 and did not believe the WMD evidence merited an invasion. Once our troops were under fire, though, I maintained a staunch, public advocacy for mission success — because the price of failure in war for our nation is too high.

When public support for the war in Iraq collapsed, McCain showed sound judgment and strong leadership. Obama wanted to walk away — however disastrous the consequences that may have followed. If war fatigue regarding Afghanistan grows, do we know he won’t do the same? Just as public concern about a “missile gap” affected an historic presidential election, the yawning “wartime judgment gap” may affect this one.

The fight in Afghanistan will surely have days, months, and even years, that are good — and bad. McCain stands best prepared to lead with adaptability and the will to win, regardless of the day’s headlines.

Major Eric Egland is the founder of Troops Need You and has served on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. He is currently training in preparation to return to Iraq.

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