Politics & Policy

Would Obama Really Fight the War?

More troops only make sense if we think he's trying to win. Is he?

They had me up until “free Afghans from the chains of tyranny.”

That is, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) had me. The group, founded by the excellent Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Dan Senor, has assembled a number of similarly impressive people to submit a letter to President Obama, urging him to be steadfast in Afghanistan. “Steadfast” in this context means sticking with, and enhancing, a serious counterinsurgency strategy.

The letter congratulates the commander-in-chief on his leadership in the war. It is quickly clear, though, that FPI’s plaudits are narrow — limited to the business of stepping up our Afghanistan commitment by 21,000 troops and thousands of support personnel. The letter politely avoids mention of the president’s leadership on releasing enemy combatants, who will now be able to join the ongoing jihad against those troops; Miranda warnings for captured enemy combatants, which will deny battlefield intelligence to those troops; fecklessness on Iran, which continues plotting against those troops; and a law-enforcement approach to counterterrorism, which has loosed the federal courts on those troops.

The main purpose of the FPI letter is to urge Obama to give his commanders additional resources if, as expected, they ask for more troops in the near future. Pointedly rebutting critics on the left and right who’ve questioned what we’re doing and why, the letter cautions against “a drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan and a growing sense of defeatism about the war.”

As one would expect, given the high quality of the thinkers who signed it, the FPI letter is commendable in many ways. It offers a concrete definition of victory, which most advocates for a robust military effort in Afghanistan fail to do. The letter describes the war as a “fight against the Taliban.” It urges that this is a fight the United States can win and — quoting Obama’s own words back at him — one that we must win in order to prevent “an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”

As I’ve recently recounted, targeting the Taliban for defeat marked a shift from the original understanding of the war. In October 2001, our aims were to defeat al-Qaeda and deprive it of a safe haven. There being no credible intelligence that the Taliban were involved in planning 9/11, the Bush administration initially was content to leave them in place as Afghanistan’s de facto government.

Though they don’t say so in the letter, the FPI signatories would surely argue that this original understanding of the war has been superseded. The Taliban were given multiple chances to turn al-Qaeda over to the U.S., and they declined — inviting their own deposition in order to protect bin Laden’s network. Given that al-Qaeda exists to terrorize America and the West, the Taliban’s conduct implies solidarity with that agenda. Whatever we may have thought at the start, it’s reasonable to conclude now that, if they came back to power, the Taliban would again give al-Qaeda safe haven, or perhaps even attack American interests themselves.

This is a powerful argument. Our current commander-in-chief comes from a school of thought that says terrorists are driven by actions taken in America’s defense, such as detaining enemy operatives at Guantanamo Bay. In 16 years of talking to and studying jihadists, I learned that what actually drives attacks and recruitment is American weakness. No display of weakness was more provocative than the U.S. pullouts from Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993 — except, perhaps, the U.S. failure to respond strongly to the bombings of Khobar Towers in 1996, the U.S. embassies in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.

If pulling out of Afghanistan were seen in the same way those failures of resolve are seen, then that would be a strategic disaster. It might ultimately cost many American lives. What inspires wavering jihadists to join terror networks is the sense that the terrorists can win; what discourages them is the demonstration that they can’t.

NOT TRYING TO WIN

But things are not that simple when it comes to Afghanistan. The U.S. mission there is fundamentally different from our experience in Beirut or Somalia. We haven’t suffered a humiliating defeat. We decimated al-Qaeda — just as we did in Iraq, right before drawing down and preparing to pull out. We would not be worried about a resurgence of the Taliban had we not already toppled the Taliban. We haven’t been defeated. We accomplished much of what we set out to do.

But “much” is not “all.” This is why the bit about needing to “free Afghans from the chains of tyranny” at the end of the FPI letter concerns me. What we have not yet accomplished that needs accomplishing is the complete defeat of our enemies. What we’ve tried to accomplish — something both unlikely to succeed and immaterial to our security — is the creation of Afghan democracy.

Afghanistan is a hardscrabble, tribal, fundamentalist Muslim country. That makes it amenable to authoritarian rule. The “chains of tyranny” historically have served it better than experiments in democracy. It survived well enough as a monarchy for half a century until 1973, when the king was overthrown in the first such experiment. That experiment led directly to a Communist coup. In turn, the coup and the subsequent attempt to erode tribal and Islamic authority led to the internecine warring and the failed Soviet occupation from which Afghanistan has never recovered.

So here’s the problem: My friends in the FPI mainly want to defeat the enemy. They are right in this sense: The enemy is Islamism, and the military component of that enemy — as the Bush Doctrine holds — includes both terrorist organizations and the regimes that enable them. The Taliban have been reduced to one of the former but could again become an example of the latter. President Obama is not interested in defeating the enemy that is Islamism. As the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes enthusiastically in the Washington Post, the Obama plan “emphasizes agriculture, job creation, and justice.” U.S. military commanders tell the New York Times that a buildup in forces would focus less on combat and more on job training and improving the delivery of services by the teetering new government.

I could support a real war to defeat our enemies. I know the FPI signatories would support that, too. But I can’t support another adventure in social engineering — and talking about freeing Afghans from the chains of tyranny will only encourage this president in precisely that direction. Obviously, a strategy for military victory has to have some nation-building elements (with the modest goal of stability, not democracy; democracy is not stabilizing in a culture hostile to it). But the military victory has to come first, especially if you are hell-bent on rolling the democratic dice. For this president, military victory comes afterward, if it comes at all.

The FPI letter trenchantly argues: “There is no middle course. Incrementally committing fewer troops than required would be a grave mistake and may well lead to American defeat. We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.” But the letter is supporting a half-measure (namely, defeating the Taliban but not the wider Islamist enemy) and fails to address the most fatal error of the past: the failure of strategic vision regarding the war as a whole.

To be fair, the point of the letter was to address past half-measures in Afghanistan, not the wider war. But the wider war, not Afghanistan, is the ballgame. We can’t win this war without a commitment and a plan to deal with all our militant enemies, wherever they may be. The enemy in Tehran, in particular, poses the greatest threat to our interests. And we surely can’t win this war if we invite Obama to define victory as breaking the chains of Muslim tyranny. That is neither realistically achievable nor necessary to our national security.

THE ‘GOOD WAR’ FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES

I don’t blame my friends for the position they’ve staked out. There is no way this commander-in-chief is going to fight the war that needs fighting. It is useless to push a guy who thinks that America is the problem to go after enemies who, he thinks, have a point. Understandably, the FPI is pressing the president on the Taliban because that’s the best we can hope to get out of him — and even that only because of politics, not conviction.

Obama painted Afghanistan as the “good war,” but not because he actually thought it was good. His view of 9/11 is doubtless more like that of his friends Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and Van Jones: “America’s chickens,” as the Rev. Wright infamously put it, “coming home to roost.” But Obama and his handlers are smarter than those other radicals: To launch his revolutionary project in America, he needed to get into power. To do that, Afghanistan was useful: Obama assured voters that he would aggressively prosecute the good war, in contrast to those dastardly Republicans who’d taken the country on a pointless, costly, unpopular diversion in Iraq. Now, having achieved power, Obama is responsible for the war he promised to fight and win. In theory, there’s at least a chance you could get him to fight it.

It is important to bear in mind that Obama’s portrayal of the war is a fiction. He can’t make the global war smaller than it is by pretending that it is only happening in one place. Iraq was a noble cause. Far from being a superfluous diversion, it was insufficient — it is nation-building that is a diversion, at least if you prioritize it over the more pressing business of defeating the enemy. Obama did what he could do to secure defeat in Iraq, and the final outcome there remains in doubt. And far from taking on the main culprit in Iran, he’s holding out an olive branch while the mullahs chuckle, build their nukes, and dispatch jihadists against American forces. Terrorist sympathizers, meanwhile, have assumed positions throughout the Obama administration, and — as the president apologizes to the world for the sins of American national defense — terrorists themselves are being released from custody.

To have the stomach for what it would take to destroy the Taliban, Obama would have to face down opposition from the Muslim world. The Muslim world may not love the Taliban, but it is foolish to presume that they prefer us. I am convinced that, as between the Muslim world and us, Obama believes that the Muslim world has the stronger case. Obama doesn’t really want to fight the war, but he doesn’t want the political fallout that would come from not fighting it. What better way to thread that needle than to escalate troop levels — not for the purpose of eviscerating the Taliban, which is what my FPI friends want, but instead for the purpose of redistributing American wealth to the Third World (Obama’s signature legislative proposal when he was a senator) and trying to build a socialist sharia state?

I’d love to be able to sign that FPI letter. But I know that we are not trying to win the overall war and that we have a commander-in-chief whose leanings are highly suspect, to the point of having dipped into the leftist fever swamps of his past to recruit the aforementioned Jones — a man who is as incoherent as he is despicable in claiming that 9/11 was both something America deserved and an inside job. Meantime, at the Justice Department, Obama is having wartime legal policy made by lawyers who spent the last several years doing pro bono work for the enemy. And at the State Department, he’s installed a legal adviser who would make our national defense subject to U.N. control and who is sympathetic to European interpretations of the Geneva Conventions Protocol I (not ratified by the U.S.), which would severely hamper our ability to conduct combat operations. If it were one of my sons on the front lines, I would be horrified at the prospect of his deployment to a dangerous place by a president who, at best, doesn’t seem entirely sure that America should prevail.

We should all be able to admit that, whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan, we’re not really trying to win this war — if we define that as working to defeat the Islamist enemy in totality. Half-measures already are the order of the day, and so I respectfully suggest that we resist accusing each other of calling for “retreat” and “surrender.” I don’t understand anyone on the right — from those who share George Will’s position to those who agree with the FPI position — to be calling for surrender. The “retreat” that’s been proposed by Will is not the surrendering sort. It’s the kind you undertake after you’ve achieved your major objectives, when you don’t have any desire to be an empire or long-term occupier but stand ready to attack vigorously if a serious threat to your country reemerges.

That strategy could be the wrong one. But I haven’t found the case being made against it very persuasive. Bruce Hoffman — a serious guy, worthy of our attention — argues that “we tried to contain the terrorism problem in Afghanistan from a distance before 9/11. Look how well that worked.” With due respect, that is a meritless claim. The Clinton administration never took serious action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Our intelligence agencies knew bin Laden was operating there, but President Clinton always discovered a reason not to pull the trigger. By contrast, after 9/11 we aggressively attacked Afghanistan’s terrorism problem. Now the Taliban and any other would-be enabler must know that the consequences of allowing al-Qaeda to set up shop are apt to be severe.

That doesn’t ensure that the Taliban wouldn’t do it, anyway. And that is why proponents of a robust military presence in Afghanistan contend that we need reliable intelligence and boots on the ground. You can’t get that, they persuasively argue, hunkered down in remote bases. This argument would be checkmate if we were actually trying to win the war. But are we actually trying to win the war? I don’t think so.

Are we going full-bore to defeat the Taliban — in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan? Do we really have the Pakistanis’ support, or are they going to aid the Taliban covertly, as they often have? What are we going to do about Iranian support for insurgents? Why are we nation-building before the enemy is defeated — which, among other things, converts the non-combat European troops in the region into a liability rather than an asset? In a war against non-uniformed terrorists, are we going to keep having miniature war-crimes inquiries and condemnations from all the usual suspects every time military strikes result in the killing of “civilians” (some of whom, inevitably, actually will be civilians)? Is the Obama Justice Department going to continue intimidating the intelligence community into paralysis while helping left-wing activists make war-crimes cases against the American officials who’ve prosecuted the war? How are we going to handle enemy combatants who are captured in Afghanistan? Are we going to Mirandize them and give them habeas corpus hearings, or interrogate them and detain them until the end of hostilities? If we are on a war footing and truly committed to defeating the enemy, why are we releasing captured terrorists who can and do rejoin the jihad in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

I’m perfectly prepared to accept that we have to defeat the Taliban as part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat militant jihadism. But I don’t see anything resembling such a strategy on the table. And I don’t believe this president would insert more troops into Afghanistan to do what my FPI friends want him to do — I see the mission shifting away from war-fighting and toward nation-building. That would mean thousands more troops put at risk with no discernible benefit to our national security. Mock the remote-base strategy if you will, but it is safer and more honest than a strategy that increases our troop commitment in a hellhole under circumstances where “war” and “victory” are words the administration won’t even utter, much less act on.

I’m all for wiping out the Taliban. But what makes us think this president will commit to that goal?

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