When he took command of NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, Gen. David Petraeus framed the war in a way President Obama dislikes. “We are in this to win,” he said. “Win” is not a term the president likes to use when discussing the war he has said all along is a necessary and just one for America to wage.
“I'm always worried about using the word 'victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur,” Obama told FOX News in an interview last summer. He hasn’t changed his tune since.
The president doesn’t use the word “victory” when talking about Afghanistan. Maybe he still thinks, however illogical that may be, that one cannot define “victory” without having a war-ending ceremony such as a treaty signing. But Michael Hastings, in the Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired, wrote, “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word ‘victory’ when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”
If that is the president’s real reason for avoiding the term, then the United States should cut its losses and leave now. We should never fight a war the commander in chief is not committed to winning.
If that is the president’s real reason, it would mean that every service member lost in Afghanistan under President Obama’s command died not to secure his country’s interests, but to secure his president’s prospects for reelection. The only reason Obama would stay in Afghanistan if he thought we could not win would be to avoid the criticism from the right that would come from withdrawing.
Only Obama, and perhaps Obama’s closest advisors, know why the president uses the word “success” instead of “victory.” Maybe he really believes that if he can’t pinpoint an exact End-of-War date, then he shouldn’t speak of winning. Who knows? But one clear effect of his refusal to speak of victory has been to encourage the Taliban and discourage regular Afghans who might otherwise be motivated to help us.
If you knew the Taliban were committed to fighting to the death, but you thought the Americans were going to withdraw by next summer no matter what, would you sign your own death warrant by helping the side you are convinced will leave before the fighting’s done?
Gen. Petraeus on Sunday sought to change that way of thinking, to reassure the Afghan people (and the government) that we would not abandon them.
“Finally, to the people of Afghanistan: it is a great honor to be in your country and to lead ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force),” he said. “I want to emphasize what a number of our country’s leaders recently affirmed – that our commitment to Afghanistan is an enduring one and that we are committed to a sustained effort to help the people of this country over the long-term. Neither you nor the insurgents nor our partners in the region should doubt that.”
It is remarkable that the general in charge of winning a war has to reassure America’s partners, potential partners and enemies that we won’t pick up and leave before we’ve won. That is usually the job of the president. But this president refuses to clearly and unequivocally make that statement. Instead, he uses vague terms like “success,” and speaks repeatedly of the day, only a year away, when American forces will begin to withdraw.
If Gen. Petraeus can achieve a “win” in Afghanistan, whatever that might look like, it will be in spite of, not because of, his commander in chief. The president’s rhetorical hedge against shooting for victory has made Petraeus’ job harder. We should all hope that Petraeus’ considerable diplomatic skills are enough to overcome that disadvantage.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.