It seems strange to recall now, but there was a time when Barack Obama assailed the Bush administration for what he saw as its lax commitment to the military campaign in Afghanistan and promised to give that war the urgent priority it deserved. But despite his earlier attempts to cast Afghanistan as the “good war,” President Obama seems determined to avoid actually fighting it.
In recent months, Obama has indicated that he would like to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible – even if that means cutting a deal with the Taliban. It’s a telling reversal: Along with many in his party, Obama used his support of the war in Afghanistan to cultivate a tough-on-defense image during the presidential campaign. Now, as the war grows unpopular, he seems to be having second thoughts about the conflict. Thus, Obama has dawdled on the critical foreign policy decision of his administration: whether to send the additional 40,000 troops that his hand-picked commander, General Stanley McChrystal, believes necessary to winning the war.
General McChrystal is the proverbial “wise old man” when it comes to defeating insurgencies, having overseen the successful American counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq. With the benefit of that experience, McChrystal has made clear that the only way to defeat insurgencies is to protect the local population from attacks by insurgents. Only then can coalition forces gain the cooperation of locals, marginalize the insurgents, and stabilize the country. It was this hard-won expertise that prompted President Obama to fire the former leader of forces in Afghanistan, the well-respected General David McKiernan, in order to give McChrystal the reins.
But having placed McChrystal in charge, the president now appears reluctant to let him complete his mission. Although McChrystal has not formally requested the 40,000 troops, it has been known for some time that he considers this troop surge – modeled on a similar buildup in Iraq – essential to pacifying Afghanistan and turning the tide against the Taliban insurgency. On that all-important decision, the president has been A.W.O.L.
Instead, there has been some indication that Obama may defer to the plan supported by Vice President Biden. Biden wishes to see America largely pull out of Afghanistan. Rather than a conventional occupation, he foresees a war in which NATO limits its operations to counter-insurgency efforts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, with an emphasis on remotely guided long-range attacks inside Afghanistan wherever al-Qaeda gains traction. The people of Afghanistan would be left to sort their nation out on their own, with vastly reduced rebuilding and security operations by NATO, if any. The “good war” would be no more.
In its defense, such a strategy would have the benefit of dramatically reducing the number of American and coalition casualties on the ground in Afghanistan, where IEDs continue to take a heavy toll on American and other coalition soldiers and ordinary Afghans alike. But it also would represent a failure of the last eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, a betrayal of the Afghan people, and the effective surrender of the country to the Taliban.
That’s precisely why General McChrystal opposes it. Speaking to a gathering of academics and strategic experts in London recently, McChrystal was asked what he thought of proposals that NATO abandon the current strategy in Afghanistan and switch from nation-building to containment, relying on long-range attacks with cruise missiles and drones to prevent the Taliban from returning to power. Without mentioning Biden by name, McChrystal’s response was unambiguous: “A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan stable is probably a short-sighted strategy.”
That strategy does have support on the Left – including among many Democrats. In a sense, this is curious. The Left often laments that fighting terrorists creates more terrorists. But how many more terrorists would be created if a broken country was left to for the Taliban to claim? For a real-life example, look no further than the Gaza Strip, which has become nothing more than a morass of terrorists and their human shields. This is what many on the Left propose to do with an entire nation.
While the president of course needs time to weigh his options, consult with experts, and meet with his military commanders and Cabinet secretaries, it is worth noting that in the past six weeks, 60 more American soldiers have died, along with eleven Britons, four Canadians, and more than a dozen other allied troops. How many more will die before the president is prepared to say what their mission is?