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Mr. President, Get In or Get Out

November 1, 2009

by Nathan Bengtsson
Mr. President, Get In or Get Out

Since General Stanley McChrystal submitted his strategic review to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early October, the war in Afghanistan has come to the fore as the most pressing issue facing the White House. The White House has been deliberating for the last few weeks and purportedly will continue for a number of weeks more.  This deliberation comes at a time that McChrystal calls in his report a  “Unique Moment in Time.” Most Afghans do not want the Taliban to return to power, but they are experiencing a crisis of confidence after a lackluster election and are war-weary after eight years of conflict with very little demonstrable progress.  Moreover, “patience is understandably short… in our own country”[1] as well.  Although many Congressional Republicans support what Obama dubbed a few months ago a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, prominent Congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have signaled that their support is flagging.  The American public is strongly divided.   Forty-eight percent of the American people support sending more troops to Afghanistan while 45 percent are opposed.  Those most strongly opposed are the Democrats who originally supported Obama in part because of his “Iraq is a bad war, Afghanistan is a good war” campaign platform.  To top it all off, McChrystal emphasizes in his report that because of this very frustration at home and abroad, the US must act aggressively now to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and make serious gains in the next twelve months[2].  It is in this context that Obama has to make a difficult decision concerning the way ahead in Afghanistan. In light of the complexity and weight of the situation, it is reasonable for Obama to take time to carefully consider America’s options.  Although McChrystal’s report is rife with language declaring that we must act decisively and act now, it is crucial that Obama avoid an “LBJ moment” and rush headlong into Afghanistan without carefully weighing the consequences.  For this reason, accusations of “dithering” by detractors like Dick Cheney is nothing more than sound-byte flak.  Mind you, Cheney’s expertise in the careful planning and successful execution of war has been called into question by recent history.

What is troubling about the deliberation process is that it seems to be a major reversal of Obama’s policy on a number of levels.  Essentially, McChrystal is making the case for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy which would require a substantial increase in the number of US and allied troops in Afghanistan.  McChrystal’s recommendations are specific, down to the minimum number of additional troops required for success, and in keeping with the administration’s assertion that securing Afghanistan is a “vital security interest” of the US.  Moreover, McChrystal was handpicked by Obama after the President made it clear that he wanted a counterinsurgency strategy like the one McChrystal is proposing, rather than a counterterrorist strategy favored by people such as Vice-President Biden.  Therefore, it seems that Obama has been committed to the type of plan outlined by McChrystal from the very beginning.  In light of the protracted deliberation now occurring in the White House, however, something has changed.  Most observers do not believe that Obama will grant McChrystal the number of troops the General says is necessary for victory.

Why is Obama hesitating when his handpicked military expert has clearly outlined the road to victory?  Perhaps, faced with the actual numbers in the general’s report, Obama has decided to rethink the cost-benefit balance of this war.  A counterinsurgency campaign, which is usually measured not in months but in years or even decades, will be an extremely costly addition to what has already been a long and deadly war.  In light of the billions of dollars, thousands of men, and many years of war required to achieve what he originally declared necessary, Obama may now be more tempted by the alternative of occasional predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives.

As an Obama supporter who  largely agrees with Obama’s Afghan policy, I would find it hard to reconcile such a shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorist methods. All along, winning in Afghanistan has been defined as the creation of a stable government that is able to suppress or expel the terrorists operating in its territory.  A counterinsurgency campaign could achieve this goal.  A counterterrorist campaign will not only fail to achieve this goal, but does not conceive of these conditions as goals in the first place.   Which of the two approaches is more likely to succeed in Afghanistan?  In the administration’s conception, at least up to now, the only possible answer is counterinsurgency.  For this reason, a full shift from “COIN” to “CT” operations is highly unlikely; it would simply be too inconsistent with the administration’s idea of US security interests in the region.  Consequently,  stuck with a winning strategy that is simply too costly to enact, Obama will probably move forward with half-measures.  The results could be disastrous.

Most observers agree that Obama will characteristically  find a “middle way,” providing some but not all of the troops McChrystal has requested.  This is a terrifying prospect.  If Afghanistan is truly the must-win that Obama has characterized it, then under-resourcing the war will be a sure fire way to waste American blood and treasure in a losing effort that will ultimately make us less secure and result in yet another loss in international prestige.  If the costs of McChrystal’s plan are too high, we must think of another acceptable way to achieve our ultimate end, which, it is sometimes hard to remember, is the destruction of al-Qaeda.  If that means switching to counterterrorist operations so be it.  But Obama absolutely should not send an arbitrary number of soldiers to be fodder in a war that, McChrystal has already told us, we will lose-- we need to send the troops the general has requested, or none at all.  To be fair, it must be mentioned that military thinkers are hard at work on a “middle way” that might be viable.  Among them, John Nagl, one of the minds behind the military’s successful shift in focus to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, has suggested a “triage” approach that may be promising.  This plan, however, largely reads as a “counterinsurgency redux” option and does not offer fundamentally different plans for Afghanistan other than asserting that an operation with fewer troops could theoretically be successful.

Henry Kissinger, rather ironically, once said, “That which must be done ultimately should be done immediately.”   At the end of the day, Obama needs to decide not what number of troops to send or how much funding the war requires, but whether or not winning in Afghanistan, as it is currently conceived, is truly essential to US security.  If it is, then let us hope that Obama acts decisively on McChrystal’s recommendations and commits fully to a winning effort.  If not, let’s get the hell out.


[1]White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group's Report on Initial USFOR-A Assessment, General McChrystal, Commander USF-A/ISAF, Afghanistan.  Aug. 30, 2009.  Accessed Oct. 23, 2009.  Document can be reached by link included above.   Sec 1-4

[2] ibid. Sec 1-4

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