Sep 22, 2009
Needed: Bi-Partisan Support on Afghanistan
Obama's Befuddling Afghan Policy
Why is the president hesitating on more troops to fight his 'war of necessity'?
By Leslie H. Gelb
Wall Street Journal
September 22, 2009
I'm lost on President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy—along with most of Congress and the U.S. military. Not quite eight months ago, Mr. Obama pledged to "defeat" al Qaeda in Afghanistan by transforming that country's political and economic infrastructure, training Afghan forces and adding 21,000 U.S. forces for starters. He proclaimed Afghanistan's strategic centrality to prevent Muslim extremism from taking over Pakistan—an even more vital nation because of its nuclear weapons. And a mere three weeks ago, he punctuated his commitments by proclaiming that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity," not one of choice. White House spokesmen reinforced this by promising that the president would "fully resource" the war.
Yet less than one week ago, Mr. Obama said the following about troop increases: "I'm going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions. There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I'm absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make a determination about resources." He repeated that on Sunday's talk shows.
Are we now to understand that he made all those previous declarations and decisions without a strategy he was committed to? Prior to his recent statements, it seemed clear that the president and his advisers had adopted a strategy already—the counterinsurgency one—and that Gen. Stanley McChrystal was tapped precisely because he would implement that plan. The idea, to repeat, was to deploy forces sufficient to clear territory of Taliban threats, hold that territory, and build up the sinews of the country behind that.
Nothing significant has changed to account for the shift from Mr. Obama's confident policy proclamations to his temporizing statements of recent days. The president certainly understood before last week that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. And he knew when he was inaugurated and when he first uttered his colorful "war of necessity" phrase that his party, and the public generally, were increasingly opposed to the war.
Americans are now confused and caught somewhere between remembering the president's insistence on Afghanistan's importance to U.S. security and rapidly rising pressure from his party to bring the troops home.
What is to be done? Even though I strongly believe that the United States does not have vital interests in Afghanistan, I also believe that Mr. Obama can't simply walk away from the war. A lot of Democrats don't seem to fathom this. At a minimum, the president has got to give Afghan allies a fighting chance to hold their own and prepare the ground to blunt the Taliban and al Qaeda. That will take time.
For their part, Republicans and others who advocate an open-ended U.S. commitment can't simply ignore the fact that political time is running out at home. It would be utterly irresponsible of them to simply shake their fingers at the Democrats and wait for them to fail in Afghanistan. Despite President George W. Bush's rhetoric on Iraq, he saw the writing on the wall and agreed to an American withdrawal. And if the hard-headed realists among conservatives aren't just playing political games, they also have to honor the time problem.
Democrats have to realize that more time is needed, and Republicans must acknowledge that America's combat commitment cannot be indefinite. If political leaders accept these underlying political realities, the Obama administration can craft a strategy along the following lines:
*Surge two additional combat brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, to lift the U.S. total to about 78,000 from 68,000.
*Deploy an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops strictly for the purpose of training and supporting Afghan police and armed forces, and embed U.S. advisers with heavy intelligence backup. As important as increasing troop numbers is changing the American attitude toward the war. Our armed forces can't continue to treat most problems as American problems, and they must begin to turn over real authority to the Afghans.
*Provide support to leaders in Kabul and tribal leaders around the country who will oppose the Taliban and fight for their independence.
*Put money on the table to divide Taliban from Taliban, and Taliban from al Qaeda. We know many of them respond to financial—as well as security—inducements.
*Build alliances to contain the Taliban and other regional extremists. Focus on India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China, and yes, even Iran, which cooperated with Washington at the outset of the Afghan war. These states share common interests with America in combating al Qaeda-like terrorism and the drug trade.
*Set up tough and credible deterrence capabilities. It's particularly critical to retain special operations forces in Afghanistan with the ability to fire from drones and perform other operations. Capabilities for missile and air attacks launched from beyond Afghanistan need to be honed as well. Token attacks won't be enough.
Putting this strategy and the attendant capabilities in place would take two to three years. But doing so would make this war Afghanistan's responsibility. It must be this way in order to avoid defeat. If the war remains essentially America's, it will guarantee failure. As almost always in such situations, the Afghans will tire of their American saviors. Even more certainly, Americans will eventually lose all patience and demand immediate pullouts, leaving Afghans unprepared to defend themselves.
The U.S. now faces many very serious troubles abroad. These were all born before the Obama presidency. The president's failure in Afghanistan would be America's failure, and we cannot allow this to happen. Defeat for America in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be avoided only if Democrats acknowledge that the Afghans need major help for two to three more years, and Republicans admit that the political clock at home won't give them much more time than that.