It was the “good” war — at least that’s what Afghanistan came to be called in last year’s Obama campaign. We had diverted resources to Iraq, the “bad” war, Barack Obama said, when we should have been concentrating on getting Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s left-wing base, always skittish about being thought of as unpatriotic, was thus given a comfy rationale for supporting a war. Once in office, the new president came up with a new Afghanistan strategy in March. We would add more troops, press our NATO allies to do the same and try a version of the Iraq surge to win over the inhabitants of towns and villages freed of the Taliban. He later replaced the commander there with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the special ops chief, who would tell the administration just what was needed to win.
The president’s enthusiasm dimmed in August when polls began showing that a slight majority of Americans had decided the war wasn’t worth the money. Now, that small majority opposes sending more troops. Support has held among conservatives, Republicans and some independents, but has been dropping among Democrats.
Secretary of Defense Gates, who through several administrations has always cut his suit to fit the cloth, began to waffle about Afghanistan. In August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs went to Afghanistan to try to persuade Gen. McChrystal not to send in a request for more troops.
Early this week, the McChrystal request for 40,000 troops was leaked. Confusion reigned and still does. Gates and the White House said the whole strategy was under review. That leading military strategist George Will had earlier suggested in a column that we pull out entirely and win the war with aerial drone attacks on Taliban strongholds. This appealed to more than a few in the administration and on the left, for no-risk wars are the only kind they like.
Then Vice President Biden weighed in with a version of the cut-run-and-bomb-with-drones approach. He thinks we should target enemy leaders and financiers via drone, à la Pakistan. This is easier said than done. This tactic has succeeded once we began to get the necessary on-the-ground intelligence from the Pakistan military to pinpoint the targets. We do not have the same resources in Afghanistan and would have to build them. This takes time. These facts don’t deter Joe Biden who, you will recall, proposed to bring the Iraq war to a successful conclusion by dividing that country in three (perhaps he’d spent a sleepless night reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars).
One nameless senior White House aide opined this week that Gen. McChrystal’s job was to concentrate on the situation in Afghanistan, but there were larger considerations beyond his ken, such as Pakistan, oil sources, Iran, North Korea, sun spots and fallen arches.
The leak of the McChrystal troop request forced the issue. Now, the Pentagon says it will not sit on the formal request after all, although it did deny bipartisan Congressional requests to have Gen. McChrystal testify. This prohibition no doubt came from the White House, which is unsure of what to do and fears that McChrystal’s testimony, like Gen. Petraeus’s about the Iraq surge, will remove Congressional doubts about sending the troops required to win the war.
“Pacifying” Afghanistan is a quantitatively tougher job than cleaning out dense neighborhoods in large cities, which was the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan consists largely of hundreds of towns and villages dispersed over a large, rugged terrain. To train an enlarged Afghan army will take many more U.S. and NATO troops than are now there. And, going from village to village to clean out Taliban and al Qaeda will take time and many troops of both armies.
The alternative is withdrawal. Anyone who thinks this will be seen in the Middle East and South Asia as anything other than a victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban has not been paying attention.
The time has come for Mr. Obama to stop dithering, take down that bottle of courage pills from the shelf and swallow some of them.
(Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.)