In the final summer of my second term, I had the opportunity to take one last trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. I jumped at the chance.
The temperature peaked at about 120 degrees when our C-130 landed in Baghdad. We made it in between sandstorms, but more were on the way. Helicopters were later grounded, so our trip from the base by the airport to the embassy downtown was by truck. I looked out the window of our armored SUV as we once again sped down what was once the world’s most dangerous road. I thought again how stressful such drives must be for our troops. Nearly everything can be a potential threat. A stalled car or someone changing a tire on the side of the road prompts thoughts of “Could that be a car bomb?” The sign of a garbage can or empty box: “Is that an IED?”
It’s difficult to imagine the stress of our troops, who drive in areas like these every day. Looking for wires laid across the road. Questioning everything. Always on high alert. I just kept thinking of the focus and courage it must take to endure that every single day.
Today, Ambush Alley isn’t nearly as deadly as it was during my earlier trips. Iraq has changed for the better. The country still has a long way to go, but during my trip in 2010, it was a safer place all around. Incidents and casualties were down. The Iraqi police and military were taking the lead. There was a sense among the troops that a corner had been turned — and they were the ones who should have known. Many of them had been there before and had a point of reference. Nearly all the soldiers I spoke with told me they felt good about how things were going.
The U.S. plan was to draw military personnel in Iraq down to 50,000 by Sept. 1, 2010, and to zero by the end of 2011. A new Iraqi government would be formed by then, and everyone was anxious to see how events would unfold. Great progress had been made, and we all hoped it would stay that way. But after coming so far, we need to make sure arbitrary deadlines don’t supersede common sense. Our men and women in uniform have sacrificed so much to get us to this point. They have given too much of their time, talent, and blood to let Iraq slide backward — even if it means keeping a small number of troops in that country a while longer.
In Afghanistan, we visited several spots on our tour, including a base near the Pakistan border. Our military presence in that country was “kinetic,” as the commanders liked to say. It was highly active, with planned and unplanned enemy engagement breaking out all over the map, every day. While we were there, two military personnel were abducted after they took a wrong turn and got fired upon and their vehicle stalled out. They were subsequently killed.
In contrast to Iraq, Afghanistan had become more challenging and dangerous since my earlier trips. Even before the wars, Iraq had more infrastructure and capacity than Afghanistan. Iraq had education, electricity, and road systems in place, even if they were old or modest in scope. Afghanistan had very little of that, and it had other challenges, including a shared border with tribal areas of Pakistan harboring individuals and groups who worked actively to destabilize Afghanistan.
Meeting with General Petraeus was one of the highlights of the trip. I had met him on other occasions, and it was a privilege to spend time with him. He is already a historic figure for his work in designing and deploying the counterinsurgency strategies that turned the tide of the war in Iraq. He was now in charge of turning Afghanistan around.
We met with him in his headquarters in Kabul. He is a thoughtful person and, as a bonus, has a good sense of humor. He believed that the momentum of the insurgency had been successfully stalled and that it would take about two years to get things on track.
Success in Afghanistan will require our country to have strategic patience. We have been there a long time, and public patience with the war effort has worn thin. But General Petraeus demonstrated in Iraq that the right amount of troops and the right counterinsurgency strategy can work. He believes a similar combination can also work in Afghanistan. We need to give him and our troops a full chance to succeed with this new strategy.
For the public to better understand the situation and have the strategic patience needed regarding Afghanistan, the president and others need to persistently remind America why we’re there and why it matters. I supported President Obama’s decision to send additional troops into Afghanistan, though I do not think it should have taken him three months to make that decision. I also don’t think he should have announced a withdrawal date at the same time.
We may well be able to start drawing down our troops by July 1, 2011, the date announced by the president, but troop-withdrawal decisions should be made and measured against our strategic objectives, not arbitrary deadlines. Signaling our intent to leave by a certain date causes friends or potential friends in Afghanistan to hedge their bets. From national leaders to shopkeepers, translators, informants, and village elders, nearly all Afghans find themselves making a daily calculation whether it’s in their best interest to help the United States, help our enemies, or just stay out of the way. Prematurely announcing when our commitment will end or dwindle has the effect of unsettling and endangering our local partners.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s reputation for uncertainty in national-security matters is well established. Some of our best allies in the world have had the rug pulled out from underneath them by President Obama. Poland and the Czech Republic are examples. His equivocal statements and actions regarding our great friend and ally Israel have caused obvious tension. His efforts to “reset” relations with Russia have resulted in a proposed nuclear-arms treaty that favors Russia and all but affirms that country’s decision to help Iran fire up a nuclear-energy reactor.
President Obama needs to understand that the goal of our national-security policy should not be for the United States to be popular in Europe or the Middle East. The goal should be to make sure our country is safe and respected. President Obama also needs to do a more forceful job of reminding people about the threat of global terrorism. That threat is obviously real, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
I spoke to one military leader in Afghanistan who described 9/11 as the beginning of World War III. “It’s not like the other world wars,” he said. “It’s episodic; it’s transnational. It will ebb and flow. It will be asymmetrical. We have an enemy that is not as easily recognizable, but this is a global, sustained effort to harm the United States.” It calls all of us to better understand what’s at stake and to have a greatly enhanced commitment to fighting against these forces. And we can all do something, starting with giving even better support to the men and women who are actually in the fight.
Sadly, President Obama will not call this effort what it is. He has stopped using the phrase “war on terror.” His administration never makes pointed references — any, really — to the true problem: radical Islamic terrorism. Apparently that isn’t politically correct. The fact is, radical Islamic terrorism exists. Pointing that out doesn’t condemn all Muslims. But there is an element of Islam that is radical and that has terrorist intentions. We need to call it what it is. We need to confront it, and we need to defeat it.
— Tim Pawlenty is the former governor of Minnesota. This piece was adapted from his new book, Courage to Stand: An American Story, released today.