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September 22, 2009

Obama's Moment of Truth on Afghanistan

From 2003 on we were told by the left that Iraq was the wrong war but boy oh boy they wanted to fight the 'real war' in Afghanistan. Yessiree, they were itching to fight the terrorists in the country that had attacked us. Then-Senator Obama, as we'll all recall, joined in the chorus.

Now that they're in power suddenly their war ardor has cooled.

As we all know the war in Afghanistan has not been going particularly well. Just as I said with Iraq in late 2006, what's done is done and now is not the time to spend our time pointing fingers and assigning blame. Let's leave that to the voters in the next election and the historians of the future. For now can we please just win this thing?

I was right then and I am right now. In late 2006 and early 2007 I was a proponent of a new strategy that came to be known as "the surge." Despite much political opposition it was implemented and it worked. Iraq is not out of the woods yet but it at least stands a good chance of success and it's people have a future.

We are that point of decision for Afghanistan. Back in March I congratulated President Obama in a post titled Obama's New Plan for Afghanistan Gets It Right...I Think. He seemed to be on the right track, but seemed half-hearted about it, so I wasn't ready to commit.

It would now appear that my hesitation was well founded. General McCrystal needs additional resources to properly implement his new strategy and now is President Obama's Moment of Truth.

The Washington Post reports that General Stanley McChrystal, our top commander in Afghanistan,

...warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure," according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." ...

McChrystal concludes the document's five-page Commander's Summary on a note of muted optimism: "While the situation is serious, success is still achievable."

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely.

The Post story doesn't specify how many troops, but the New York Times says that it could be "from 10,000 to as many as 45,000."

So now President Obama has a decision to make. How important is this? I think Michael Goldfarb has it right when he says that "Health care reform won't make or break Obama's presidency. The way he conducts the war in Afghanistan will."

What Strategy?

When the surge for Iraq was first proposed opponents said that we had to have political progress before we could have military progress. They were wrong for reasons which I have gone over a zillion times on this blog, and they will be wrong for the same reasons if they propose it for Afghanistan. The short version is that the lesson of counterinsurgency is that you cannot have political progress unless you first secure the polulation.

General George Casey, the man who preceded Petraeus as commander in Iraq, thought that the way to victory was to build up the Iraqi army and draw down American troops, who he thought were fueling the insurgency. Some now say the same thing with Afghanistan. They were wrong then and they're wrong now.

When American troops are among the people in force they can protect the population. When the population feels safe they will trust the troops and will give them intelligence, and we can defeat or tamp down the insurgents. This gives us breathing space to build up the indigenous army to the point where they can hold on their own.

Drawing down troops and only sending them in for hit-and-run raids is foolish and won't work. We tried it in Iraq in 2005/6 by keeping our troops on five large bases and sending them out only on raids. It didn't work because the only way to win an insurgency is to get the people to trust the counterinsurgents, and the only way that will happen is if the counterinsurgents live among the people. "Commuting to work" doesn't work.

Illustrating the difference with an example, Aaron MacLean posits two futures for Afghanistan over at The Weekly Standard.

Scenario One - Raiding From Afar

It is 2014, and in places like Helmand province most people have not seen a Coalition serviceman in years. When they do come, they come at night, break down someone's door and take away someone's father or brother, who is usually never seen again. This is, however, a much less common occurrence than the sudden descent of incredible destruction from the sky. Again, this usually happens at night, and in the morning the news spreads of how many women and children were killed, how there were no militants in the area, et cetera. The national government fell in 2013, and what was left of the Afghan army retreated to the north, where it achieved some level of dominance and where the situation has come to resemble the pre-9/11 struggle between the Northern Alliance and the Pashto-dominated Taliban. In the south and the east, a loose confederation of militant groups under the aegis of the Taliban vie for control, and a pre-modern theocratic totalitarianism is the daily situation in most villages and cities: beheadings, stonings, and other manifestations of divine justice are conducted regularly and in public to maintain what order there can be. As foreigners from America and Europe withdrew, foreigners from places like the Caucuses, Arabia, and North Africa have come in increasing numbers, and locals hear rumors of training camps located in remote areas. The most significant consequence of the Coalition's draw-down in 2010 actually has little to do with Afghanistan at all: the Pakistani government is now about to fall, having been fully destabilized by attacks based across the Afghan border. In the highest militant circles, liaisons are being sought with the Pakistani intelligence service to discuss the future of that country's nuclear arsenal.

Scenario Two - Counterinsurgency

In one future, the United States and NATO are beginning to draw down troops from the levels they reached in 2010. That was a bloody year, as were the two that followed it, but the level of violence has been dropping steadily since then as the sense of order and stability improves. As happened in Iraq, Coalition forces have come to be respected as the best guarantor of stability and security in most of the country. In some regions this is because the legitimacy of the Afghan government is fully accepted, and in others it is due to bilateral arrangements made by Coalition troops with local tribes. Terrorist attacks are still a regular occurrence, and a low level of cross border violence from Pakistan-based militants--who are harassed but not significantly hampered by the government in Islamabad--seems to be irreducible. But in general the widespread violence which spiked in the later part of the last decade is fading into memory, and the "safe-havens" within Afghanistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda could trade poppy, train, and operate, are eliminated. There are still such places in Pakistan, but our robust presence along the Afghan border gives us options for dealing with them, and leverage over the Pakistani government.

The real experts are Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. This husband-wife of scholars are probably the smartest military analysts on the planet.

In January of 2007 Frederick Kagan and retired Army Vice-Chief of Staff Jack Keane released an AEI report called Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. They got the ear of President Bush and the plan eventually morphed into the surge. Frederick Kagan can therefore be considered one of the intellectual architects of the surge.

Kimberly Kagan, a former professor at West Point, now has her own think-tank, the Institute for the Study of War. All of her reports are must-reading.

They are to be listened to. Yesterday they released their plan for Afghanistan, A Comprehensive Strategy for Afghanistan: Afghanistan Force Requirements. I haven't read it, but hope to do so here shortly and will report on it when I do. From their introduction:

To inform the national discussion, therefore, we have produced a report that argues for an addition of 40,000-45,000 US troops in 2010 to the 68,000 American forces that will be there by the end of this year. The report illustrates where US, NATO, and Afghan forces are now and where additional forces are needed to accomplish the mission. It links the US force requirements to the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces on an accelerated timeline. It explains the methodology for assessing the adequacy of a proposed force-level. This product, and our recommendations and assessments, are entirely our own--they do not necessarily reflect the views of General McChrystal or anyone else." - Fred and Kim Kagan

Presidential Leadership

President Bush failed to continue to make the cases for Afghanistan and Iraq once the initial invasions were over. President Obama is on track to make the same mistake with regard to Afghanistan. I understand that he has a domestic agenda that he considers important, but instead of going on Letterman he needs to get serious and address the American people about Afghanistan. If he does not, he will lose what support he has left.

Charles Krauthammer rips Obama for his lack of leadership Fox News All-Stars last night:

I think what's really important here are two dates. The first is August 30. That's when the McChrystal report was sent to Washington. That is three weeks ago. Obama has had a single meeting [on that report] since then.

He says he hasn't reached a conclusion -- I suppose because he is spending all his time preparing for Letterman and speeches to schoolchildren -- to focus on a war in which our soldiers are in the field getting shot at and, as the president himself is saying, without a strategy.

Now, the other date is the 27th of March, when Obama gave a speech in the White House flanked by his Secretaries of Defense and State, in which he said, and I will read you this, because it is as if it never happened, "Today I'm announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

So we for six months have been living under the new Obama strategy, of which he says today we have none. And his next sentence is, again in March, "This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review" -- not the beginning, the end of the policy review.

So it has been his policy, and now he tells us we don't have a cart and we don't have a horse.

What's happening here is he announced the strategy of counterinsurgency in March. He said at the time that we "cannot afford" an "Afghanistan that slides [back] into chaos."

He said "My message to the terrorists who oppose us -- We will defeat you," And now he's not sure he wants to defeat them.

Swell. Obama needs to get on the ball and fast or this will consume him. We must win in Afghanistan or we face multimple 9-11s and a resurgent jihadist threat around the world.

Posted by Tom at September 22, 2009 10:15 PM

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Very nice piece... There are few good options - if any in Afghanistan. Obama has few really good options, but He will have to throw His leftist supporters under the bus if He is to do the right thing here. ( for more on Obama's Afghanistan vise, you can view: http://www.conservativeblog.thewebinfocenter.com/conservative-blog/obama%E2%80%99s-afghanistan-dilema )

This will be very interesting to see if the current President can do a genuinely difficult thing - without European support or approval - to engage the enemy in Asia.

Posted by: MAS1916 at September 23, 2009 11:18 AM

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