A Further Perspective

The Debate Over Afghanistan

Obama's on the fence, and both the Left and the Right are rightly worried about what he might do. But the U.S. military just might save their commander-in-chief from himself.

By 12.7.09

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President Obama's speech on his new path forward in Afghanistan has drawn fire from both the Left and the Right, and here's why: The Left fears that Obama has "escalated the war" indeterminably; the Right fears that he has planned for a premature defeat. The Left fears that Obama has sold out to the Generals; the Right fears that he has sold out to his dovish political base.

The Left thinks that the United States can't win in Afghanistan. The Right thinks victory is possible, but not with Obama as commander-in-chief; he won't, they believe, pursue victory.

Both the Left and the Right view the July 2011 transfer date with deep suspicion. The Left fears that Obama either doesn't mean it or won't be able to effect it. The Right fears precisely that: that Obama does mean it and will effect it (a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011).

To the Left, this means a never ending war that will sap the Obama presidency of its raison d'être, while ruining the president's "reform agenda." To the Right, a premature withdrawal means a debacle of historic proportions, which will seriously embolden the jihadists and jeopardize vital U.S. national security interests.

So who's right? Well, that's the million-dollar question, the answer to which no one knows: because the answer lies in Obama's head. It all depends on what, in his mind, the July 2011 transfer date really means, and how committed he really is to winning in Afghanistan. The evidence thus far is mixed.

Certainly, as I have argued elsewhere, including here at The American Spectator, the president's speech does not inspire confidence. For starters, Obama never used the word victory. "The mission he outlined is not to win," explained Forbes magazine's Claudia Rosett, "but simply to bring the war to an 'end.'"

Obama, moreover, cited President Eisenhower to try and justify why the American mission in Afghanistan must be severely constrained, and why it must end almost as soon as it begins. "Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended," Obama said, "because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."

In other words, as the Lexington Institute's Dan Goure has observed:

The President's justification for his decision on troop levels and timelines was that we would only do what could be achieved at [a] reasonable cost, and [that] he needed to balance between national programs.

Apparently, the demands of U.S. national security and the real danger of attacks on our homeland needs to be balanced against all [of] our domestic concerns. National survival and the safety of our people is no more important than job creation or cap-and-trade, I guess.

The President's prescription for attacking the cancer that is the Taliban is to provide only a reasonably priced response, not what it is likely to take to actually cure the condition. Kind of like his health care reform proposal.

On the other hand, say uber-hawks Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol, although "Obama's decision, and the speech in which it was announced, were not flawless," the president nonetheless "has ordered sufficient reinforcements to Afghanistan to execute a war strategy that can succeed."

What's more, they note:

The plan the president announced on Tuesday features a commendably rapid deployment of reinforcements to the theater, with most of the surge forces arriving over the course of this winter, [thus] allowing them to be in position before the enemy's traditional fighting season begins.

This is certainly true and important; and yet, as Charles Krauthammer points out, the president's commitment to the war, and his will to win, are still very much in doubt. Winston Churchill, after all, famously promised "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." Obama, by contrast, promises "hedges, caveats, and one giant exit ramp."

The conservative hawks take solace in the recent remarks of senior administration officials -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones -- all of whom have labored to make clear that the July 2011 transfer date does not mark the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

In fact, quite the contrary: As Gates said yesterday on the Sunday talk shows (ABC News' This Week and NBC News Meet the Press):

This is a transition that is going to take place… It will be the same kind of gradual, conditions-based transition -- province by province, district by district -- that we saw in Iraq. But it begins -- but it begins -- in July 2011…

[So] we will have 100,000 forces, troops there [in Afghanistan] and they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some -- [a] handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit -- will begin to withdraw at that time.

The real question is whether the Afghan war is in its last throes and ending, or whether instead it's really just begun.

Critics like to complain that the war has dragged on for more than eight years, "with no end in sight." This is only half true. The U.S. military has been fighting essentially the same seriously under-resourced war, based on a flawed strategy, for each of the past eight years. Consequently, the war has not gone well or progressed much. In fact, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.

Now, finally and belatedly, the United States seems poised to wage an adequately resourced war based upon a sound counterinsurgency strategy. That's why, according to General McChrystal, "things are [now] different. We have a level of commitment [now] that we have not had before, and that will change everything," he told U.S. troops in Afghanistan last week.

But McChrystal also paraphrased Winston Churchill to explain that the war is far from over. "I don't think this is the end. I don't think it's the beginning of the end. But I do believe it's the end of the beginning," he said.

Exactly so. Forget the past eight years, because ever since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vastly undersized U.S. military contingent there has been waging a rear-guard holding action -- but not anymore. Now, apparently, the United States is gong to wage a classic counterinsurgency campaign tailored specifically for Afghanistan.

Thus, far from ending; the war instead is just beginning. And the question is: does the President of the United States understand this?

Perhaps not. In his speech at West Point, after all, Obama said, "we must come together to end this war successfully." He explained the "strategy that my administration will pursue to bring this war to a successful conclusion."

But again, the war is not really concluding; it is beginning -- and it could take some time to turn the situation in Afghanistan around. And if it does, will the president have the intestinal fortitude to stay the course and see things through to victory? Or will he instead demand an end to what the critics say is an "endless war"?

One thing that might save the president from his more dovish and self-destructive instincts is the U.S. military -- and specifically the superb planning and warrior expertise of our officer corps coupled with the fighting spirit and martial skill of our grunts and their non-commissioned officers.

After all, these are the men and women who effected, in near record time, a dramatic turnaround of the once dire situation in Iraq. And they did so when all of the so-called experts had written off Iraq as a hopeless cause.

If our U.S. military men and women can effect an equally miraculous and quick turnaround of the situation in Afghanistan -- and I wouldn't bet against them because they're that damn good -- then President Obama may, to his great surprise, inherit an Afghanistan for which he can claim credit, if not victory, in 2012.

Oh, U.S. troops will still be there in large measure, and they'll have to stay in Afghanistan for some time. But by 2012 perhaps, the situation in Afghanistan will have stabilized, and U.S. military casualties will be few and far between. Afghanistan then will have receded from the front pages of our laptops and our iPhones to become essentially not that big a deal for either the politicians or the American people.

I have no doubt that, if President Obama allows it, that will happen at some point. It is, in large measure, what has already happened in Iraq. I just don't know whether the situation in Afghanistan can be turned around by 2012. I also don't know what the president is thinking, nor what he will do when tested. We will see.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.