Politics & Policy

Getting It Right in Afghanistan

It is time for the president to state unequivocally that we will stay in Afghanistan until we win.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is adapted from remarks made by Sen. John McCain in his opening statement at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing on Afghanistan on Tuesday, June 15, 2010.

As all of you know, I believe that winning the war in Afghanistan is a vital national-security interest. I have said for years that the best way to achieve success is through a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy, backed by strong civil-military and U.S.-Afghan partnerships. For this reason, I have supported, and still do support, the president’s decision to increase our commitment in Afghanistan.

I will be brief and come right to the point: As I gauge the progress of any war effort, I look at the broader trend lines, and it is for this reason that I’m so concerned about our campaign in Afghanistan. Many of the key trends seem to be heading in a bad direction, perhaps even signaling a mounting crisis.

As an example: Ten thousand additional NATO troops are supposed to deploy along with our surge forces. But we presently have just over half of that number, and more importantly, it is not clear when, or from where, the rest of them will arrive. At the same time, the Dutch and Canadian governments continue to plan for an imminent withdrawal of their forces, while just yesterday, the government of Poland — which has been a major troop contributor — called on NATO to draw up a timetable to end the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan and withdraw our forces.

In Marjah, our troops are performing exceptionally, but it appears that we and our Afghan partners have not yet been able to provide durable, consistent security to the population. Not surprisingly, governance and development seem to be lagging. General McChrystal recently referred to Marjah as a “bleeding ulcer” and questioned whether we have enough troops there. Rather than serving as proof that NATO and the Afghan government will succeed, which was the intention, I fear that Marjah at the moment is sending a much more troubling signal.

In Kandahar, where the success of the war itself could be determined, I agree with General McChrystal’s recent comment that “it is more important we get it right than we get it fast.” That said, the delay in our operation is not projecting an air of confidence and success. To get Kandahar right, we all know that we need an integrated political-military strategy, but as far as I can tell, the political part of that strategy still isn’t there. I hear a lot about the number of civilians who will deploy to Kandahar, but I still have not heard a convincing explanation for how we will begin to change the complex balance of power within the province, the troubling behavior of key local power brokers, the performance of the Afghan police in the city, and the counterproductive contracting practices that we are dependent on.

Meanwhile, it is very troubling that President Karzai has decided to remove his minister of interior and his head of intelligence, two of our most important partners in his government, and two men I know to be upstanding and effective. I don’t know why President Karzai made this decision, but the explanation given by his former intelligence chief, which we read in the newspaper this weekend, seems to have a ring of truth to it — that President Karzai no longer believes the United States will succeed, and that he is shifting as a result to a policy of accommodation with the Taliban and the Pakistani military. If true, this could be very dangerous.

And that is the larger trend that underlies all of the others: the mounting loss of confidence in America’s commitment to succeed that seems to be shared by both our friends and enemies in Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors. As our witnesses know, especially General Petraeus, a counterinsurgency is a battle for the thoughts and allegiances of people. It is about demonstrating to those sitting on the fence that they should throw their lot in with our partners and us — because we are going to win. No matter how much it has been explained and fixed with caveats, the decision to begin withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan arbitrarily in July 2011 seems to be having exactly the effect that many of us predicted it would: It is convincing the key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan that the United States is more interested in leaving than succeeding in this conflict, and as a result, they are all making the necessary accommodations for a post-American Afghanistan.

This is not to say that we cannot succeed. I think we can, and we must. But it is to say that, with ongoing difficulties in Marjah, a delayed offensive in Kandahar, growing concerns about the Afghan government, troop commitments still lagging from NATO, and the final units of our own surge not set to reach Afghanistan until the first of September, it now seems increasingly clear that hoping for success on the arbitrary timeline set by the administration is simply unrealistic.

Again, I’d echo General McChrystal: “It is more important we get it right than we get it fast.” That goes for Kandahar, and for the war itself. It is time for the president to state unequivocally that we will stay in Afghanistan until we win. We need to begin a realistic debate about what it will take, and how long it will take, to achieve our goals, and I look forward to having that discussion with our witnesses.

Sen. John McCain is ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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