Politics & Policy

Lasting Ramifications

Afghanistan is a war worth winning, but not a war worth fighting indefinitely.

I wasn’t surprised to read George Will’s Tuesday column calling for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan. In fact, I’m more surprised that the recent Afghanistan debate (or lack thereof) progressed this far without a prominent conservative defector. I hope his column stimulates an exchange in which the best ideas (which rarely emanate from the Washington chattering class) reach the battlefield.

In my gut — as a soldier and hawkish conservative — I want to fully support the Afghanistan mission, just as I support the Iraq surge and see a need for victory there. For the most part, my brain tells me the same thing: I know the two battlefields are scarcely compatible; however, the lasting ramifications of American success or defeat — real or perceived — remain at the heart of each mission.

Whether to prevent terrorist safe havens, support democracy as an alternative to radicalism, stabilize a nuclear Pakistan, or safeguard the reputation of the United States, the mission in Afghanistan has been, and for the moment remains, worthy of American blood and treasure. Whether we like it or not, our national-security interests are linked to men with bad intentions who roam the hills of Afghanistan.

That said, I share many of Will’s reservations (even if much of his argument is flawed in ways that Fred Kagan and Bill Kristol have illuminated). Afghanistan is not Iraq, and has a great many factors that make it much more difficult. It is backward, impoverished, tribal, largely illiterate, mountainous, drug-ridden, decentralized, violent, and fractured. Think biblical times with AK-47s and suicide bombers.

In addition, the Obama administration is correct to point out (if even with political motives) that the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban has been under-resourced, under-funded, under-manned, and ill-defined for years. As a result, the Taliban (and to some extent al-Qaeda) have gone on the offensive, growing stronger and spreading their influence across the country. We have failed adequately to respond.

But before saying, as Will does, that the fight is “too difficult” or “too long,” or involves “too much sacrifice,” we must look at what changes are needed to turn it around; and if we think these changes can successfully be made, we should advocate them and closely monitor the administration’s willingness to implement them. Only then, I believe, can we make a decision about the merits of supporting a longer war in Afghanistan.

In order to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and take back the initiative, American forces need, at the very least, four things: 1) qualified military leadership; 2) a coherent civil-military strategy; 3) a clear and attainable mission; and 4) the resources to execute it. A thorough analysis of each of these requirements would be very long indeed, but my summary view is that we have met the first two and failed to meet the latter two.

By all accounts, General McChrystal — the new commander of all forces in Afghanistan — is the best of the best. In contrast to his predecessor, McChrystal is an outside-the-box thinker who thrives in the ambiguity of asymmetrical battlefields and understands the need to execute a true counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Between McChrystal and General Petraeus at CENTCOM, President Obama has the top-tier military leadership in place.

As for strategy, with necessary manpower, the whack-a-mole approach that characterized our efforts for years will soon come to an end. As his forthcoming review advises, McChrystal wishes to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign, which in some areas has already begun. It’s very similar to the strategic shift that accompanied the surge in Iraq, with U.S. forces protecting the population (rather than chasing the enemy) and partnering with, and building the capacity of, Afghan security forces. Such a strategy must be resourced properly to be effective, but having the strategy is itself the critical first step.

A clear and attainable mission in Afghanistan is harder to articulate. President Obama calls Afghanistan a war of necessity but hasn’t explained what that means. Earlier this month, he said that our goal in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies,” a goal in line with more traditional counterterrorism efforts. His press secretary, however, recently added that the U.S. wishes to see that “we have a government in Afghanistan that is self-sufficient, that we have a security force in that country that’s able to deal with the challenges that are presented to it.” Other officials have hinted at nation-building. These statements, combined with President Obama’s, spell a broader scope and deeper commitment. However, none of the statements signal a comprehensive understanding of the desired end-state to be reached through a counterinsurgency strategy. Hopefully President Obama’s forthcoming statements will clarify the mission scope.

Finally, the largest component at this point is one of resources. The best indicator of the Obama administration’s commitment will be its decision about whether to increase, and if so by how many, the number of troops in Afghanistan. Should Obama commit the number of troops that General McChrystal says he needs (as many as nine maneuver brigades, or roughly 45,000), he will demonstrate the firmness of his intention to turn the tide. That would, in my opinion, be a reason to support the ongoing mission fully. But if we see instead that the administration’s tough talk is accompanied by a tepid increase in resources, Will’s argument will become more compelling.

 

Sen. John McCain expressed similar sentiments regarding the Iraq war in 2006. To paraphrase the senator: We have a moral obligation to the troops on the ground. We should resource them properly with the right strategy and give them a chance to win in Iraq. But if the White House and Congress don’t, and insist on fighting the war on the cheap, then we have an obligation to bring them home and risk no additional lives for an ill-defined, under-resourced fight.

I agree. We owe it to the Marines and soldiers slogging it out with insurgents every day to get this right. If we do, they’ll fight, they’ll persevere, and they’ll win. If we don’t, we are setting them up for failure. Afghanistan is a war worth winning, but not a war worth fighting indefinitely. We can accomplish the former, but mustn’t tolerate the later.

Capt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is chairman of Vets for Freedom.

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