Politics & Policy

Trust Our Generals

No one knows how to win in Afghanistan better than McChrystal and Petraeus.

Following President Obama’s Afghanistan speech at West Point on Tuesday, my organization — Vets for Freedom — issued a statement of support for the president’s troop increase, but I waited on a personal statement. The speech seemed mediocre and generally uninspiring, but I wanted to give the underlying plan time to sink in. Since then, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with that plan: 30,000 additional troops, plus NATO inputs, is close to General Stanley McChrystal’s request, and follow-up testimony by Secretary Gates revealed that the July 2011 “date certain for withdrawal” is not so certain after all.

I am hesitant about President Obama’s core commitment to the mission, but he showed true political courage in almost tripling the U.S. presence in Afghanistan since January. And most important, Gens. McChrystal and David Petraeus — who conducted the successful Iraq surge and will lead our renewed fight in Afghanistan — enthusiastically support the plan and believe they can achieve significant progress with the new resources. Generals have not always been right, but these two men are our most experienced warriors and helped the U.S. win a similar war against a similar enemy.

Some say we don’t know what a “win” would look like in Afghanistan, but we do: It will look like Iraq. Afghanistan and Iraq are very different places, with very different dynamics — but the foundations for success in each place are the same. Iraq is still in physical disrepair, but it has become an increasingly stable state in which indigenous security forces control the ground and America’s enemies are denied haven. Nobody knows more about what it will take to succeed in Afghanistan than the men behind the Iraq victory.

So why do those men support the new plan? I believe it’s because on balance, the president listened to them, and not to political advisers such as Vice President Biden and Rahm Emanuel. Yes, the president delayed his decision, but he’s now rushing troops to the front. Yes, the president set a tentative timeline, but he is allowing Secretary Gates and General McChrystal to reassure our allies and the Afghan people that it’s tentative. And yes, the president continues to bad-mouth the legacy of Iraq (which infuriates Iraq veterans), but his decision is evidence that he’s actually learned the right lessons from that war’s surge.

On Friday, NRO’s Andy McCarthy challenged the plan. According to McCarthy, counterinsurgency is nothing more than glorified nation-building, and under General McChrystal, our troops will not be given the full opportunity to execute their core competency — because McChrystal’s approach is “not focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces.”

McCarthy’s argument confuses focus with results. It’s true that counterinsurgency doesn’t “focus” on terrain capture and insurgent kills, but it reaps significant results in those areas. Our experience in Iraq illustrates this point.

Before the surge, U.S. strategy in Iraq could be summarized as “a focus on seizing terrain and destroying insurgency forces.” I spent my 2005–2006 tour in Iraq trying to do just that, to little lasting effect. We killed pockets of bad guys without actually holding the ground, and then fought the regenerated insurgency over and over again. Our approach lacked the coherence, coordination, and sustainability necessary to translate local successes into strategic victory.

Then came the Iraq surge and General Petraeus’s properly resourced, population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. The result was that in 2007 and 2008, General Odierno and General Petraeus conducted more offensive operations, and killed more insurgents, than we had in years previous. The surge approach — what McCarthy calls a “nation-building, soft-power strategy” — actually included more kinetic operations than ever before. As our troops hit the ground and interacted with locals, intelligence flowed, and the U.S. started killing more bad guys. This progression is well documented in Kim Kagan’s book The Surge: A Military History.

The same can, and likely will, happen in Afghanistan. We will kill more Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents than ever before, and we will turn those kills into population sympathies — because we’ll be fighting amongst and defending local Afghans. All the while, we’ll be training our replacements and enabling the beginnings of basic governance.

So, while I respect McCarthy’s unparalleled legal insights, I think he’s wrong on McChrystal’s plan. I understand that McCarthy — like many NRO readers — mistrusts Obama, and I share much of that mistrust; save this decision, he isn’t the strong commander-in-chief we’d all like to see. But it’s not inconceivable (and I would argue, not unlikely) that McChrystal and Petraeus could change the game in Afghanistan over the next 18 months and beyond — so that we can bring our guys home and focus on other threats. They could win, in spite of President Obama.

America has a long and fundamental tradition of civilian oversight of the military, and I don’t suggest we change that. But on these wars — and with this strategy — we should to a large degree defer to our top warfighters. President Obama’s plan has the support of those warfighters, and thus it deserves full-throated support, not just half-hearted pleasantries. The president will make mistakes and say things we don’t like, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to show apolitical resolve towards his underlying mission. Our best generals have been given their orders and some reinforcements; now it’s time to let them win.

– 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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