Ignore the Skeptics: We Can Win Afghanistan
Memo to the president: Some on the left are telling you that we can’t win in Afghanistan, and that ramping up the war there is a mistake. Don’t listen to them. The stakes are too high.
In an interview with Alan Colmes this week, William Ayers, looking more like a junior college English Lit professor than the bomb-planting radical he once was, had this to say about his friend, the 44th president of the United States, and his decision to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan:
“It's a mistake. It's a colossal mistake. And, you know, we've seen this happen before, Alan. We've seen a hopeful presidency, Lyndon Johnson's presidency, burn up in the furnace of war.”
Those who believe the war cannot be won at acceptable cost should review the successes an effective counterinsurgency achieved not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, in the period of late 2003 to early 2005.
As a candidate, President Obama argued that Iraq had diverted our attention from the most-important theater in the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, and promised, if elected, to provide the manpower and other resources necessary to prevail there. Prof. Ayers was keeping a lower profile then. We don’t know if he privately objected to his candidate’s position on Afghanistan or if he assumed he wasn’t serious about it. But, today, Ayers wants us to know he remains, rhetorically, at least, at the barricades of his youth. And just as he still clings to ridiculous '60s nostrums for social justice, so too does he clutch to his heart the first principle of the worldview he acquired as a young and foolish man, and has isolated from contaminating contact with the history of the last 40 years: War is dangerous for children and other living things.
Mr. Ayers is not a serious man. The commander-in-chief, of course, is expected to be. As a young liberal politician on the rise, the president traveled in circles that included, indeed, admired, Mr. Ayers, something the McCain campaign thought merited the attention of voters but most reporters and many voters considered a frivolous diversion. Perhaps they were right. Now, their former association seems to serve only to remind us how some people grow up and, as the president encouraged in his inaugural address, “put aside childish things,” and others never do. Mr. Ayers’ views about Afghanistan, war, and terrorism seem as much a juvenile affectation as the hoop dangling from the 64-year-old’s right earlobe.
But, of course, no one charged with thinking seriously about the war in Afghanistan cares that Mr. Ayers believes we should extricate ourselves immediately from it.
However, there are other members of the unserious far left who share his opposition to our continued involvement there and his disappointment that the president was apparently in earnest when he promised to win the war. And they can exert a kind of pressure on the president if the voices become loud enough.
Even more worrying are signs that serious-minded people in the media and foreign-policy establishment are beginning to despair that Afghanistan (the “good war,” as opposed to the unnecessary one in Iraq) is winnable at an acceptable price. Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to a dispiriting comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam, despite the fact their respective military and political challenges, and certainly the stakes involved, are more dissimilar than analogous. And one after another, administration officials have warned that our goals in Afghanistan must be more “achievable,” which seems to suggest we should adapt goals to force levels, tactics and resources, and not the reverse. If that proves not to be the administration’s intention, and it commits to an unavoidably long and costly counterinsurgency to defeat the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda, President Obama will prove to be the resolute, clear-eyed, and practical statesman he assured voters he would be, and more aware of the terrible consequences of defeat and alert to the opportunities for success than some venerable wise men now wringing their hands over the difficulty of the challenge.
The goal of our effort in Afghanistan must be to prevent it from again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists to organize, train, and plot violence against the United States. To accomplish it requires us, our allies and the Afghan army to reduce the threat from the Taliban and al Qaeda to the point where the Afghan army is able on its own to deal with it. That is a distant but achievable goal. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has warned that the increase in force levels is not part of a temporary surge, as in Iraq, but will likely be necessary for as long as five years. We will have to provide much better security to Afghan communities than we have. The Afghan army will need to be at least doubled in size. A far greater and much more unified international effort is required to help Afghanistan develop economically. The Afghan government, currently incapacitated by corruption and incompetence, must be reformed.
The first principle of a successful counterinsurgency is to provide security to local populations. That objective has, in recent years, placed second to our efforts to chase and engage the enemy. Gen. Petraeus is in the process of reversing that mistake, but it will take time. The second principle, I believe, is to help ensure the Afghan government is viewed by the people as a legitimate authority, capable of addressing their needs, and imposing its authority by just means. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban to return to power. Only a tiny fraction of the population supports them. But they must believe they have a viable alternative to the cruel despotism on offer from their former rulers. This will require more of what is casually described as nation building, not less as many argue.
Presumably, President Obama would have preferred to await the recommendations of the strategic review of Afghanistan his national-security team has undertaken, before ordering the deployment of additional troops. But the situation in Afghanistan is dire.
Violence and civilian casualties have spiked, and the spring fighting season is imminent. The troops were urgently needed, and more troops are almost certain to be deployed after the administration completes its review.
As dire as it presently is, the war remains winnable. But as Dr. David Kilcullen, the brilliant counterinsurgency expert who advises Gen. Petraeus, has predicted, the decisions we make this year will probably determine whether we ultimately win or lose.
Those who believe the war cannot be won at acceptable cost should review the successes an effective counterinsurgency achieved not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, in the period of late 2003 to early 2005, when the former US commander, Lieutenant General David Barno, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad completely changed our tactics in Afghanistan. As John McCain pointed out this week, we increased US forces, tightly integrated US military and civilian commands, increased nonmilitary assistance, and reversed the previous concentration on counterterrorism—finding and fighting the enemy, and focused on the far more critical objective of protecting the population.
The results of these changes, Sen. McCain correctly argues, were improved “governance and reconstruction. …[E]ntrenched warlords were nudged out of power. Militias… were peacefully disarmed of their heavy weapons, and national elections were conducted successfully and peacefully. The Taliban showed signs of internal dissent and splintering.”
But the successes were squandered in the following years as “the civil-military command structure was… replaced by a balkanized and dysfunctional arrangement,” and “the integrated counterinsurgency strategy was replaced by a patchwork of different strategies, depending on the location and on which country’s troops were doing the fighting.”
Hopefully, the administration’s strategic review will arrive at these same conclusions, and immediately reverse these terribly costly mistakes. It won’t be easy, and American casualties will almost certainly increase in the short term. But we can still prevail. We must prevail. For the likely alternative to Mr. Ayers’ dreaded furnace of war in Afghanistan and its impact on the Obama presidency is the mass murder of Americans by terrorists, at a place and time of their choosing. That’s something our new president, commendably, seems to recognize.
Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Senator John McCain and senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.