Politics & Policy

Moving forward in Afghanistan

Pete Hegseth miscontrues the case against the McChrystal plan.

In his heroic service to our country, Pete Hegseth has forgotten more about warfare than I could ever hope to know. But his NRO article on Monday, offering — in rebuttal to my column from last week — a defense of President Obama’s political decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, is ill-informed. Hegseth caricatures my views, and he fails to address — much less to answer — most of what I actually did say.

He also attributes to me an assertion I’ve never made and to which I don’t subscribe, claiming that I believe “counterinsurgency is nothing more than glorified nation-building.” He purports to quote me as having written that the strategy of surging troops to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare is a “nation-building, soft-power strategy.” He doesn’t link to anything I’ve written in which that quote appears (it certainly does not appear in the one column of mine to which he directs readers). I don’t recall ever saying such a thing, and word-searches through my articles and Corner posts at NRO do not turn it up. I can say for sure that I don’t think COIN is a soft-power strategy and that I’ve written things about COIN that are the antithesis of Hegseth’s portrayal of my position.

To be clear, I don’t think COIN is nation-building, let alone that it is “nothing more than glorified nation-building.” It can be used in conjunction with nation-building, and I have expressed concern that “under the rubric of counterinsurgency” an imprudent nation-building effort could masquerade as a military mission. But I fully appreciate that COIN is a serious combat strategy, and I have expressly credited the surge in troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Iraq with “the rout of al-Qaeda” — hardly an assessment of “soft power” in action.

I am a dissenter not from COIN per se but from the McChrystal plan, the strategy urged by the Afghanistan theater commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Hegseth’s purpose is to defend the McChrystal plan, even though President Obama is not instituting it. The McChrystal plan and COIN are not one and the same. General McChrysal would employ COIN tactics in the course of a broader nation-building scheme. It is the nation-building to which I object. It is premature: Nation-building, if we should do it at all, should follow the enemy’s defeat.

The rationale behind the McChrystal plan is fallacious. It surmises that the war is Afghanistan’s, not ours, and that Afghanistan’s war can somehow be won without addressing the enemy’s support systems outside that country. It holds that Afghans are more likely to side with us than with their fellow Afghan Muslims, fighting them on our behalf after we leave, against the edicts of their religious authorities. And it assumes that it is somehow America’s responsibility — indeed, the job of our armed forces — to address what McChrystal calls “a crisis of confidence among Afghans, in both their government and the international community.” And therefore, the thinking goes, we owe it to the Afghans to risk American lives, and to subordinate the imperative of destroying the enemy, while we find them jobs and build them a functioning, accountable government capable of raising revenue, securing the populace, and providing social services, even for remote tribal enclaves that prefer independence from Kabul.

That the McChrystal plan is an extravagant nation-building exercise is clear from the leaked portions of the general’s white paper. Further, U.S. military commanders have told the New York Times that the buildup in forces will focus less on combat and more on job-training and the delivery of government services. More significant, in explaining his rationale for adopting the 18-month draw-down deadline (to which both Hegseth and I object), President Obama bluntly stated that failure to set a departure date “would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade.”

As Hegseth points out, my background is in the law, not military operations. If the war we are fighting were fully contained in Afghanistan, and I were the commander-in-chief, I would have to get the best advice I could get from people like Hegseth and Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, as well as from the many military strategists who are not COIN enthusiasts. If the COIN adherents convinced me that their approach was the best way to break the enemy’s will, I’d have no trouble directing that it be implemented, with every confidence that it would result in the enemy’s defeat.

Concededly, Hegseth would have an uphill battle convincing me that COIN is the way to go, but not because COIN is “soft power.” The war is not fully contained in Afghanistan. It is global, and I continue to believe the roadmap to victory is the Bush Doctrine as originally articulated right after the 9/11 attacks (and before it was modified by the “forward march of freedom” rhetoric that has nothing to do with American national security). That is, we must attack al-Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they operate, and we must regard rogue regimes that aid and abet the terror network exactly as we regard the terrorists. Therefore, I am predisposed to agree with critics who argue that COIN fails to address our enemies’ support systems outside the countries where COIN is employed, that COIN concedes too much of the initiative to the enemy (it permits the enemy to choose the time and place of combat), that COIN is of questionable value in a place where the insurgents have broad support among the populace, and that COIN’s features (years of fitful, defensive engagements and casualty-taking) are ill-suited to maintaining the political support a successful war effort must have in our impatient democracy.

Hegseth and other proponents of escalating troop levels to conduct COIN operations in support of nation-building enterprises point to Iraq as proof that their approach is the way to go. I think Iraq proves the opposite. As I’ve acknowledged, General Petraeus’s COIN strategy certainly did smash al-Qaeda’s cells in Iraq. It did not, however, destroy al-Qaeda; the terrorists just moved elsewhere and, in fact, they are gradually becoming more active in Iraq again as our forces wind down and prepare to depart next summer.

And while General Petraeus took on Iranian operatives inside Iraq, Iran itself was kept immune from attack, despite its arming and directing the activities of anti-American jihadists. That was not the general’s fault; he was stuck with a feckless determination by administrations of both parties to pursue the holy grail of a grand deal with our committed enemies, even as the mullahs defiantly built their nukes and continued killing Americans.

Al-Qaeda aside, Americans were told that our nation-building effort in Iraq would (a) be cost-free, since Iraq would be grateful for our sacrifices and its oil riches would underwrite them, and (b) result in a stable democracy that would be a staunch American ally against terrorism. In the event, hundreds of billions of American dollars later, Iraq is an emerging sharia state that vows “not to establish relations with the Zionist entity” and indulges rampant persecution of religious minorities. It draws ever closer to Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of jihadist terror, and has pressured Obama into releasing Iran-backed terrorists who murdered American troops. It denies future basing rights to the United States and, according to a 2008 BBC poll, 42 percent of Iraqi citizens believe attacks against American troops are justified, while over 70 percent want American forces out of their country.

Unquestionably, the COIN approach has tamped down the violence in Iraq. While it lasts, it is likely to do the same in Afghanistan. But while reducing violence — however temporarily — is a good thing, it has never been our primary objective. Neither is “freeing Afghans from the chains of tyranny,” as Hegseth and others described the mission in a recent letter to President Obama. Chains of tyranny are a characteristic of fundamentalist Islamic nations. That is why such nations breed and tolerate jihadism. It is also why they feel so threatened by the forces of freedom and Western civilization. Obviously, we need to convince them, in the language of force and resolve (a language they understand), that we will pulverize them if they threaten our country or allow their territories to be used to launch attacks against us. But we should otherwise let them be and have as little to do with them as possible. Their shackles are their own problem, and it’s not one we can fix.

Understand, though, I am fundamentally with Pete Hegseth. I supported the surge in Iraq, even though I was much less enthusiastic about it than most of my friends. I was, and remain, indifferent about Iraq’s political development, but I didn’t think we could afford to leave while al-Qaeda was still a vibrant force. Afghanistan is a different dynamic, and the commitment of our new commander-in-chief is suspect, but I still believe it would be terrible to give our enemies the propaganda victory of a U.S. withdrawal at a time when they are ascendant. Our withdrawals under siege in Beirut and Somalia had disastrous consequences: Al-Qaeda still uses those examples to stir its operatives. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the appearance of American weakness, not Guantanamo Bay, that drives jihadist recruitment and attacks.

The resolve I’d like to demonstrate, however, has to be balanced against the fact that we are not playing with pieces on a chessboard. These are young American lives at stake. Our troops serve under a commander-in-chief whom Hegseth admits he doesn’t trust. Hegseth nevertheless insists that the generals “could win, in spite of President Obama.” But win what? Even if I were confident that generals could overcome dubious civilian leadership (and I’m not), I don’t see a plan for winning. I can’t help having a big problem with committing our troops in the absence of such a plan.

All that said, though, President Obama is the commander-in-chief, and he has committed 30,000 more troops, at least temporarily. General McChrystal is an extraordinarily capable commander, and his COIN tactics, if carried out as Hegseth suggests they will be, may dramatically damage the Taliban (and, derivatively, al-Qaeda) while bringing stability to parts of Afghanistan — which would help us with the powder-keg in Pakistan. That wouldn’t win the war, but it would be an improvement. The nation-building part of the equation, which I fear is predominant, is wasteful and will earn us more enemies than friends in the Muslim world, heightening the danger for our troops. On that matter, however, the die is cast. This is not the mission I would have given our forces, but it is the mission they have. I have had my say and I don’t think it helps to keep carping about the mission while our brave men and women are putting their lives on the line to accomplish it. Regardless of my misgivings, I support our troops and their commanders. I pray that Pete is right and I am wrong.


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