Loose Canons

Debating Groucho’s War

The level of debate on the war in Afghanistan has sunk to new lows.

By 7.14.10

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So Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, "I went on a safari to Afghanistan, and one night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." Then Bill Kristol said Steele should be fired for cruelty to elephants and Ann Coulter said no, Kristol should be fired because Steele had shot a liberal elephant in Obama's pajamas.

Well, it didn't go quite that way but it may as well have. The level of debate on the war in Afghanistan -- even among Republicans -- has risen to heights previously reached only by the Marx Brothers.

Republicans can no longer afford a frivolous debate on the war. They have allowed George Bush's nation-building strategy to morph into Obama's without attempting to undertake the most urgent task in war: if what you are doing isn't working, you have to start at the beginning and examine whether you're fighting the war the right way, or even fighting the right war.

Let us admit that what we are doing in Afghanistan -- or anywhere else -- isn't working. Defending Obama's approach to the war simply because it's a continuation of Bush's leaves Republicans -- and all Americans -- in the attitude of Britain's pre-war government. As Churchill described it in 1936, it was "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."

War, as Sun Tzu wrote about 2300 years ago, is of the most vital importance to the State, the province of life and death, the road to survival or ruin. In short, a war is to be defined as a matter of national survival to which the state must devote all its intelligence, will, and resources to winning. This we have not done. So let us begin by evaluating the war in Afghanistan in those terms.

Is the war in Afghanistan a matter of national survival? If so, how must it be fought?

If we withdraw from Afghanistan, what will the consequences be for America?

As defined first by Bush and now by Obama, the answer to the first question is no and makes the second moot. The goal of that war was to rout al Qaeda in Afghanistan and to prevent that nation from becoming the sanctuary from which terrorists could and did mount attacks against the United States that it was before 9-11.

But al Qaeda, as Gen. Petraeus testified in his recent confirmation hearing, is now relocated to Northwestern Pakistan. As its Somali branch al Shabab proved with last Sunday's attack in Uganda, al Qaeda has the ability to mount attacks outside the nations in which its forces are based. And, as the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq shows, when U.S. forces begin to withdraw, it quickly returns. It will return to Afghanistan too, soon after we leave.

For all our rhetoric about fighting an unconventional war, we have -- since 9-11 -- been fighting an unconventional enemy under a conventional strategy. Nothing is gained by the counterinsurgency "clear, hold and build" strategy because clearing the terrorists from one area just lets them slip into another and reestablish themselves, and return whenever we abandon the ground we gained.

The Bush-Obama nation-building strategy, as I've written here many times, is a self-imposed quagmire that condemns us to fighting the enemy's proxies. You cannot defeat an enemy by only fighting his proxies.

Right now, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is rejecting the foundation for General Petraeus's counterinsurgency, saying that tribesmen and sheiks shouldn't be recruited into the local security forces on which the counterinsurgency depends. Petraeus -- in between visits to the Aspen Institute -- dropped in on Pakistan's army chief Parvez Kayani to praise Pakistani efforts against the "Pakistani Taliban" while diplomatically avoiding mention of the Pakistani-Afghan Taliban who use Northwest Pakistan as a sanctuary from which they mount attacks against our forces in Afghanistan.

Terrorism is, and will forever remain, an existential threat as long as nations such as Iran, Syria and others (notably Saudi Arabia) are free to sponsor it. But having spent almost nine years fighting an unconventional war on a conventional strategy, we are compelled to debate the questions that Democrats studiously avoid and Republicans haven't had the courage to ask.

What happens if we withdraw from Afghanistan?

The Karzai government is weak and unpopular. It won't long stand against the Taliban and al Qaeda will certainly return quickly. We cannot long suppress al Qaeda with drone attacks, which depend on the sort of highly accurate intelligence we don't have (and will be impossible to gather from abroad).

In a conversation with a former high-ranking Pakistani government official last fall, I was told that if we don't help them defeat the "Pakistani" Taliban, Pakistan will fall. He insisted that American forces were essential to the battle and that Pakistan could not long resist them alone. Which means that the Taliban directly -- and their sponsors in Iran and other Islamic nations indirectly -- will gain control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Does that mean we cannot withdraw in the foreseeable future?

It does, especially if we stay on the current course. But if the current strategy doesn't lead to victory, why should we maintain it? In short, we must not. The options we have are few, and all are anathema to Obama.

We cannot win the kinetic war before we win the ideological war which we have not begun to fight. Our strategy should be to split Islam by condemning all -- Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, Yemenis, even Americans -- who support or excuse the hegemonic ideology that so many Islamists follow. We defeated communism not only by containing the Soviets' military adventurism but as importantly by attacking their central beliefs. We have to do the same to the Islamists.

Soviet Premier Brezhnev said that communism would inevitably rule the world. The Islamists' belief parallels his. Obama's administration demands that our enemies be labeled without reference to Islam. As long as that continues, we cannot win the ideological war.

Terrorists don't respect borders and neither can we. Any nation that harbors them should be on notice that we will strike wherever we can find enough terrorists to justify the expenditure of ammunition.

And the most important -- and most difficult -- task is to stop nations from sponsoring terrorism. They must be attacked openly when all else fails. We have failed, utterly, to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons. Because no peaceful option exists, we should do whatever is necessary -- with the Israelis or alone -- to destroy Iran's ability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.

By doing so, we would send an unmistakable message throughout the Islamic world: America will defend itself and its interests by whatever means necessary. The result will be an enormous diminution of Iran's and other nations' support for terrorism.

And, short of military action, we can disrupt nations' sponsorship of terrorism by expanding dramatically and employing consistently our cyberwar capabilities. The transfer of money from Islamic nations to terrorist groups, including the Taliban, through the international banking system can be disrupted. Whatever funds are involved should be forfeited -- i.e. seized by our government. They will still get funds by the Islamic halawa transfer system which uses couriers and written notes. But that, too, can be targeted.

There is much more we can and should do. But these things will have to await an American president who is willing to win this war.

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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.