If there were doubts about President Obama’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, this week’s events have been nowhere near as clarifying as the White House may have hoped.
In a meeting with Congressional leaders earlier this week, the president firmly insisted that he would not approve a “dramatic reduction” of American forces. Nor would the U.S. mission change from pacifying the country to a more limited counterterrorist action aimed at the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, Obama signaled that he was not ready to side with his generals in the field, most notably NATO commander Stanley McChrystal, in supporting the buildup of 30,000 to 40,000 troops that they consider necessary for the success of the current mission.
The president, in short, is decidedly undecided.
Obama’s ambivalence reflects the growing rift within his own administration – and within the Democratic Party more broadly. Obama entered office with a professed commitment to the war in Afghanistan, reproaching the outgoing Bush administration for what he called its lack of “focus” on that crucial theater.
But the president’s early enthusiasm has not proved contagious. According to the Washington Post, senior White House officials are “building a case internally for a narrower counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan that would maintain roughly the current troop level and rely on expedited training of Afghan troops, stepped-up Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and support for Pakistan’s government in its fight against the Taliban.”
This curtailed strategy reportedly finds its most senior supporter in Vice President Joe Biden. Despite a dubious background in foreign policy strategizing – in 2007, the then-senator notoriously endorsed splitting Iraq along ethnic and religious lines, an idea that has not aged well – Biden has called on the president to scale back the military presence in Afghanistan. Instead of working to win civilian cooperation and providing protection against Taliban terrorists, Biden wants a less comprehensive campaign that would target the Taliban and stand up Afghan forces. This strategy has won Biden plaudits from disaffected Democrats, many of whom see Afghanistan as a lost cause. But it also has some highly significant detractors: the generals overseeing the Afghan campaign.
Chief among them is General McChrystal. In contrast to the backroom intrigue of Washington politics, there has never been any doubt about the general’s preferred strategy. In a compact counterinsurgency guide released this August, McChrystal wrote that the first priority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan – and the most crucial to defeating the Taliban insurgency – should be protecting Afghan civilians.
McChrystal’s guide serves as a trenchant rejoinder to the narrow-war theme gaining traction among Democrats. Anticipating the Biden strategy of search-and-destroy combat, McChrystal warned that victory in Afghanistan would not be achieved solely from superior firepower. “We will not win simply by killing insurgents,” the general wrote. Instead of conventional military tactics, McChrystal pushed for troops to conduct community meetings, local projects, and work programs that could win Afghans to their side and undermine the influence of the Taliban and affiliated jihadists. “Earn the support of the people and the war is won, regardless of how many militants are killed or captured,” McChrystal explained.
As a corollary, McChrystal noted that American troops would not stabilize the country merely by rushing Afghan troops into battle. A different kind of relationship was required, one in which American troops would not simply train Afghan forces, but also “partner” with them by living and training together and integrating their command structure.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is a version of the “clear, hold and build” strategy that has worked such wonders in Iraq. It’s no surprise that the architect of that earlier strategy, General David Pertaeus, now the head of the U.S. Central Command, has tacitly offered his support for McChrystal’s plan, asserting that Afghanistan requires a “sustained and substantial commitment” – a subtle but unmistakable rebuff of the lighter footprint alternative.
Yet President Obama remains noncommittal. That was not always the case. It was as recently as August 2007, just prior to the Iraq troop surge, that a prominent Democratic politician was making a provocative appeal for the U.S. to abandon its limited counter-terror tactics in Afghanistan in favor of a broader campaign to secure the country. “We’ve got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there,” the politician declared. That politician, of course, was Barack Obama.
What has changed? The politics, for one thing. According to recent polls, Afghanistan is an unpopular war, with just 40 percent of the public backing the war effort. Another source of concern for the administration is the defection of fellow Democrats. John Kerry, the current chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for many in his party when he insisted this week that “it would be irresponsible” to send more troops to Afghanistan until it becomes clear “what is possible in Afghanistan.” (How this could be assessed unless commanders are given full resources to carry out their mission, including the required troops, Kerry did not bother to explain.)
Still, there are indications that the president is not yet willing to yield to the increasingly hostile political climate. In a speech earlier this week, he promised that “we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies.” That goal that would seem to have more in common with General McChrystal’s strategy than with Biden’s. Encouragingly, Obama also said that he continues to support McChrystal. “I’m the one who hired him,” he reportedly said. “I put him there to give me a frank assessment.”
The general has now delivered a strategy that he believes can turn the tide of a faltering military campaign. The president should have the courage to heed his counsel.