Pretending in Afghanistan

Pretending in Afghanistan

By Jack Kelly - September 9, 2009

The attention of the punditocracy was diverted from Obamacare this week by conservative columnist George Will's call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan (and a second column calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, as well).

The war in Afghanistan is not going well. U.S. casualties so far this year are already higher than in any of the previous seven years of our involvement there. President Barack Obama is considering a request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for an additional two to four brigades on top of the 65,000 U.S. troops already in the country.

Mr. Obama must be wondering how this could be happening to him. Afghanistan was supposed to be the good war. He'd embraced it less out of conviction than out of political calculation. Mr. Obama was strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, but mindful of the perception many voters have that Democrats are weak on national security. By embracing the war in Afghanistan, he could argue he was willing to use force, too, to protect America's national security. He was just smarter about it than George Bush was.

Basing national security policy chiefly upon domestic political posturing has its downside, as the president is learning now. If he accedes to Gen. McChrystal's request, he will own the war in Afghanistan in the same way Lyndon Johnson owned the war in Vietnam. But if he denies the request, he'll also own the consequences.

Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks if the president denies Gen. McChrystal's request, "he may succeed in lowering the political, military and financial profile of the war for up to a year, but in the process he will squander our last hope of winning."

More troops can be a critical element in a successful strategy, as they were for the surge in Iraq. But as we learned in Vietnam, more troops are not a substitute for a well-thought-out strategy.

A sound strategy has been lacking in Afghanistan. Robert Gibbs -- who is rapidly replacing the hapless Scott McClellan as the worst White House press secretary in modern times -- says the mess in Afghanistan is all George Bush's fault. Mr. Gibbs says this about every mess President Obama finds himself in, but in this instance he's mostly right.

As Mr. Cordesman noted, the Bush administration "blustered about the successes of civilian aid efforts in Afghanistan that were grossly undermanned and underresourced, and it did not react to the growing corruption of Hamid Karzai's government or the major problems by national caveats and restrictions on the use of allied forces and aid. It treated Pakistan as an ally when it was clear ... that the Pakistani military and intelligence service did tolerate al-Qaida and Afghan sanctuaries and still try to manipulate Afghan Pashtuns to Pakistan's advantage."

President Obama didn't create the mess. But we're still pretending that Hamid Karzai is competent, that Pakistan is friendly and that NATO troops (other than the Brits, Canadians and Aussies) are useful. And Mr. Obama has imposed new, restrictive rules of engagement that are more likely to get our troops killed than the enemy.

I share the view of my friend Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, that Afghanistan is rapidly becoming Vietnam redux:

"The core reason we failed in Vietnam was our largesse. We poured in so much wealth that we corrupted the Vietnamese leadership, from presidents down to battlefield commanders."

To continue on as we have in Afghanistan will be to suffer defeat at maximum possible cost, as we did in Vietnam. To win, we must either do counterinsurgency right, as we eventually did in Iraq, or shift our focus to killing the enemy. We can "win" in Afghanistan if we deny the Taliban control of the population centers, which is a lot easier and cheaper to do than trying to turn it into a Western-style democracy.

Lt. Col. Peters recommends reducing our forces by two-thirds, abandoning all but Bagram Air Force Base and a few satellite bases from which special forces, aircraft and drones would strike at the terrorists.

"Stop pretending Afghanistan's a real state," he said. "Freeze development efforts. Ignore the opium. Kill the fanatics."

I agree. I hope the president does.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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