Politics & Policy

Waiting to Lose in Afghanistan

At a temporary control point in Afghanistan’s Khowst province, March 30, 2012 (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson)
The United States needs a president who is determined either to win or to bring the troops home.

After a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, at tremendous cost in American blood and treasure, many Americans are now asking: Why are we there? What do we have to show for our efforts? The answers are troubling: A government, under President Hamid Karzai, that is corrupt, largely incompetent, and of questionable loyalty; inept Afghan security forces that regularly turn their weapons on their American and NATO advisers; and a resurgent Taliban poised to regain control of the country after U.S. forces withdraw. Many look at these facts and conclude that the U.S. can’t win in Afghanistan and should therefore get out. But few have examined the dire consequences of losing.

What would it mean to lose in Afghanistan? The U.S. invaded the country in 2001 with the stated objective of vanquishing al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored it. When we finally withdraw all forces in 2014, the Taliban influence in Afghanistan is likely to be substantial, if not paramount. Should the Taliban retake much of Afghanistan, whether we label our withdrawal a defeat or call it something more appetizing (a draw, for example) is immaterial: Our enemies will view this as an American defeat, and learn lessons that will bode ill for our future.

#ad#The Soviet Union did not acknowledge defeat in Afghanistan in the war that spanned much of the 1980s. Yet the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 rallied tens of thousands of militant Islamists to the cause of jihad, and gave birth to al-Qaeda and a new generation of emboldened international Islamic terrorists that quickly trained their sights on America and the West. The first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City took place only four years later. Why should we expect a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid failure to establish security there, to yield a better result? Leaving Afghanistan with a resurgent Taliban poised to retake control of much of the country will only empower and embolden America’s enemies, like Iran, and all but ensure that America will have to fight very costly and potentially far deadlier wars.

Many say that the American people, after ten years, are tired of the war in Afghanistan. But I believe Americans — and certainly the U.S. military — are tired of not winning. The U.S. is in dire need of a serious shift in strategy — from one that props up a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government and simply trains and equips its security forces, to one that smashes our enemies, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. America must allow U.S. combat forces, now largely restricted to defensive actions, to take the offensive, rout the enemy from safe havens in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas, radically reduce the Taliban’s military capability, and then declare victory (which, be it noted, President Obama failed to do in Iraq) and bring our troops home. 

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Winning in Afghanistan does not mean that we must build a strong central government and economic prosperity — a virtual “Little America” — in that country. This was always an unrealistic project. Winning simply means that we defeat the insurgency so that, as in Iraq, our enemies know that they were defeated, cannot be emboldened by our departure, and show no imminent threat of toppling the government. Then, U.S. forces can withdraw and leave Afghans to rebuild whatever nation they see fit for themselves, with the warning: If we have to come back here again, there will be hell to pay. Why are we fighting in Afghanistan at all, if not to establish peace and deter the possibility of future war? Yet it would seem that the U.S. exit strategy currently being pursued will likely achieve the opposite.

#ad#Today, the Obama administration is pursuing a strategy in Afghanistan that amounts to America’s waiting to lose. It is a strategy that is unacceptable on any playing field. Imagine this: The U.S. is locked in a close football game with a determined opponent for three bruising quarters. The game can go either way, yet our leaders have virtually directed our combat forces to take a knee for the last minutes of the game because they have decided we can’t win. No sports fan would tolerate this, and neither should the American public. Most disturbingly, this closely resembles the “Vietnamization” strategy employed to extract America from Vietnam. President Nixon called that effort “Peace with Honor,” but as the North Vietnamese Army marched victoriously into Saigon, the rest of the world called it “defeat.” 

President Obama’s timetable for complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 is based not on military-operational considerations, but on domestic politics. The announcement of the withdrawal of surge forces in September 2012, prior to the November election, and plans to end “combat operations” next year — which means that U.S. combat troops will be severely restricted from taking the offensive, though still every bit as much in harm’s way as they are now — makes this all too clear. Our courageous combat forces will continue to fight valiantly for as long as they remain in Afghanistan. But if President Obama and America’s generals have decided they don’t have the will to win, let’s not simply wait until 2014, but bring those troops all home immediately and brace ourselves for the future.

America is in dire need of a president and senior military commanders who boldly tell the truth. On Afghanistan, the truth is that Americans want to win; they want the tremendous sacrifices our sons and daughters have borne in Afghanistan to not have been in vain. And for that, we need leadership in the White House that is willing to empower our military leaders, down to the lowest level, to do what they do best: fight to win. 

— Leif Babin is a former Navy SEAL officer and decorated combat veteran who served three tours in Iraq, earning a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart. He is the co-founder of Echelon Front, LLC, a leadership- and management-consulting firm.

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