Loose Canons

They’ll Put Afghanistan Back on the Front Page

Two congressional candidates are uniquely suited to lead a Republican reassessment of the Obama-led war.

By 10.18.10

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Hope and change haven't taken root in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since Barack Obama took charge of the war, he has done nothing more than time-limit President Bush's nation-building strategy.

Republicans have, in misplaced loyalty to Bush, failed to analyze and criticize Obama's Nation-Building 2.0. They have gone along with Obama's strategy despite the increasingly obvious problems with it. But come January, two men who may be elected this year are uniquely suited to lead a Republican reassessment of the war and how Obama is handling it.

In Iraq, as the New York Times reported yesterday, the "Anbar Awakening" fighters who were the foundation stones of the temporary success of the counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle, are now reverting to the insurgency. The report quotes Awakening commander Bakr Karkhi saying that two dozen of his men have rejoined the insurgency in the last few weeks. It also quotes the Iraqi security forces commander in Diyala, Lt. Gen. Tariq al-Assawi saying, "The Awakening is not helping the police. They are not telling us if Al Qaeda is in the area. They are not warning us about car bombs that go off in places they are responsible for securing. A lot of them are definitely helping the insurgents."

Iraq, predictably, is disassembling itself in direct proportion to the reduction in American involvement.

And the nation-building effort in Afghanistan is not doing even that well. Iranian and Pakistani support for Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, and the deep-seated corruption of the Karzai government have -- despite American attacks that have killed many of the terrorist leaders -- prevented the strategy from working there. Reported peace talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban are, as they had to do, foundering.

After Obama's December 2009 announcement of his "surge" of troops into Afghanistan, he ordered a review of the Afghanistan strategy to be completed this December. That review would have enabled General Petraeus and the other military leaders to recommend, and get the president's approval, for changes to the strategy to ensure its success. But in a September 30 letter to congressional leaders, Obama wrote, "We are continuing to implement the policy as described in December and do not believe further adjustments are required at this time." By so doing, he has mooted the December review. There will be no change in strategy and no change in Obama's plan to begin withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan in July 2011.

Whatever the results of the December review -- and regardless of Obama's steadfast refusal to change the schedule for beginning the withdrawal -- Republicans must find their voice on the war. Whether or not they gain control of either house of Congress, they are duty-bound to publicly dissect Obama's strategy and recommend how it can be repaired. Two Republican candidates who may be elected in two weeks -- Army Lt. Col. Allen West and Marine Lt. Ilario Pantano -- by their experiences in the war should lead that public reexamination of the war.

Allen West -- running in Florida's 22nd district -- is a 20-year Army veteran who saw the counterinsurgency first-hand in Iraq. West, a civil-military affairs officer at the time, was accused of abusing a prisoner. The incident occurred when an Iraqi policeman, arrested for conspiring with the terrorists, refused to give information on a planned attack on West. Intervening in the interrogation, West held the man down and discharged his pistol into a sand-filled barrel next to where the man stood. As a result, the man divulged information that saved American lives. West immediately went to his commander's tent, woke him up, and told him what he had done. The political correctness police went after him, and he retired from the Army.

After retiring, West signed on as a civilian advisor and served there for nearly two years. He's running against doctrinaire liberal Ron Klein (ACLU rating 90%, ACU rating 4%).

West is an intellectual who understands the war as few others do. (Full disclosure: Allen is a friend whom I admire comprehensively. He's presidential material.)

Ilario Pantano is a warrior. He served in the Gulf War in 1991 and -- after 9/11 -- returned to active duty. He was leading his platoon against insurgents in the Sunni Triangle when they came under fire and he shot two men. Pantano -- accused by a disgruntled sergeant who he had demoted -- faced charges of killing the two Iraqis without justification and was exonerated. He later wrote the book Warlord about his experiences. He is tough, well-spoken, and has the intensity of intelligence we so often see in Marines.

Pantano is running in North Carolina's 7th district (which hasn't had a Republican congressman in more than a century) against incumbent Mike McIntyre (ADA 85%, ACU 32%).

There are two factors that make West and Pantano ideal to lead Republicans in a public examination of the war in January. First, they have seen the enemy first-hand and understand him as no one who lacks that experience can. Second, they both have had to fight both within and against the culture of counterinsurgency that places pressures on our troops that they, as warriors, should not have to bear.

The latter is what makes these men rise above the rest. There are other military veterans, some with service in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are in Congress or running for the first time this year. But none of them have faced the grim truths that West and Pantano have had to overcome.

President Obama has worked hard to take the war off the national agenda. And he has succeeded. A New York Times/CBS News poll released last month said that only 3% of Americans thought that the war was among the top issues facing government. Another poll released just a few days ago, this one by CNN, said that support for the war is down to an all-time low of 37%.

The December review of Afghanistan strategy will come and go, and the Obama-friendly media won't notice its passing. America deserves more, and better. If Allen West and Ilario Pantano are elected, the House Republican leaders should appoint them to lead an independent review of the strategy Obama is pursuing. It is, the president say, supposed to destroy the Taliban's momentum and ensure that they and al-Qaeda cannot again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist haven after we leave. It will not do that. America needs to understand how the Bush-cum-Obama nation-building strategy has failed and how we need to reorient ourselves to defeat a threat that has already inflicted on us the 9/11 attacks and the more than 1,200 soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan. Allen West and Ilario Pantano can deliver that understanding like no one else can. Here's hoping they get the chance.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.