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To succeed in Afghanistan, we’ll need the support of the likes of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. He was the daring tribal sheik in Anbar province whose pivot against al-Qaeda in the summer of 2006 began to turn the Iraq War.
He marshaled other tribal leaders in what grew into a nationwide anti-al-Qaeda movement. Sattar acted knowing that the Americans had his back. “Instead of telling [the Iraqis] that we would leave soon and they must assume responsibility for their own security,” Col. Sean MacFarland, who worked with Sattar, has explained, “we told them that we would stay as long as necessary to defeat the terrorists.”
Sattar trusted Pres. George W. Bush and admired him “for sticking to his principles despite public opinion.” All of this is recounted in the new book on the Anbar revolt, A Chance in Hell, by Jim Michaels. As Mark Moyar writes in a review in the Wall Street Journal, it was only by winning the confidence of elites like Sattar — who was killed in September 2007 — that we had a chance to win over the Iraqi population.
What would Sattar have made of Pres. Barack Obama, who has set a deadline of July 2011 for the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and of Vice President Joe Biden, who guaranteed in a Newsweek interview — “Bet. On. It.” — that there will be large numbers of troops leaving by then? We know what Afghan president Hamid Karzai thinks — that he’d better explore an accommodation with his enemies well before any helicopters leave the U.S. embassy rooftop.
Obama implicitly promised a departure from the bumptious ways of George W. Bush as commander-in-chief. Where Bush was stubborn, he’d be flexible; where Bush was unconditional, he’d be nuanced; where Bush went all in, he’d avoid overcommitting. But ambivalence doesn’t play well in a war zone, especially in a war of insurgency that’s partly a contest over staying power.
If Obama’s July 2011 deadline showcased his deliberative care as the honorary faculty chairman of national-security meetings, it played disastrously in Afghanistan. In sacking Rolling Stone subject Gen. Stanley McChrystal and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus, Obama has a chance to hit “reset.” But only if he finds his inner cowboy.
There’s no way the Afghan equivalent of Sattar sitting somewhere on the outskirts of Kandahar can know Obama’s intentions when members of Obama’s council of war don’t know them. Biden says July 2011 marks the start of major withdrawals; secretary of defense Robert Gates disagrees. Who’s to say?
To put the severity of a hard July 2011 deadline in perspective, the last unit of the surge Obama ordered last December won’t arrive in Afghanistan until toward the end of the year. The deadline gives the fully surged forces all of six months to operate, in an environment Petraeus says is more difficult than Iraq.
Obama should redefine the deadline as the time frame for a review of the current strategy rather than its endpoint. If it’s not working, then he can reconsider. Until then, he should shut down the rancorous internal debate within his administration and maintain the same firm tone he struck in his excellent Rose Garden remarks upon McChrystal’s departure.
His left might not like it, but they won’t berate him as a “chicken hawk,” as they did with Bush, or flail his chosen commanding general as “General Betray Us,” as MoveOn.org did during the Iraq surge.
Besides, his base isn’t his target audience. As President Bush always said, there were four key audiences during the Iraq War — the American public, the troops, our Iraq allies, and the enemy. “The enemy thinks that we are weak,” he said in a candid White House interview during a low point of the surge. “They’re sophisticated people, and they listen to the debate.”
That’s just as true of the enemy in Afghanistan. Now that Obama has picked Bush’s general, he should replicate his stalwart style.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.