The Obama Watch

A War Too Rough

Obama's Afghanistan War problem in a nutshell.

By 9.22.09

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The war in Afghanistan began with clear ambitions: U.S. forces, subsequently aided by Western allies, sought to kill or capture al Qaeda militants who had used the country as a sanctuary. To accomplish this the United States would drive the radical Islamic Taliban government from their control of Afghanistan. In the eight-year interim Washington apparently has lost track of the original objective.

The Taliban as a movement still exists and controls certain portions of Afghanistan, mainly -- though not solely -- in the south and southeast. For several years NATO forces have been attempting to train Afghan Army units to carry on the battle against the Taliban. The number successfully trained is far below that which is needed to accomplish this goal.

Here we return to the original point of our objective in Afghanistan. Our aim was to force the Taliban to relinquish their hold on the government. This has succeeded, but now we are committed to keeping today's and tomorrow's Taliban from returning to power. To do this General Stanley McChrystal has requested 30,000-40,000 U.S. troops (ten thousand below an earlier request) in addition to the approximately 68,000 personnel already planned to be in-country by the end of this year.

It is well understood from the experience of the last several years that the creation of a cohesive national Afghan military force has little chance of coming to fruition in any reasonable time frame. It is not revealing classified information to state that the initial efforts to establish an Afghan Army have been hindered by the traditional rivalries among the various Afghan tribal and clan groups. This all-encompassing socio-cultural clash is augmented by the overwhelming illiteracy of the eligible manpower.

What is driving American policy in Afghanistan is the inability to conceive of a way to avoid appearing to quit the field with the war still at hand. The plan of creating an Afghan Army to take over from the U.S. and NATO is simply a device to allow the West to get out of a place it long ago had decided was a losing proposition strategically even if it was relatively successful tactically. As the situation stands, it would take many more years to weld together such a unified Afghan fighting force -- and even that appears problematical.

A national Afghan army can be created, but only by a strong and dynamic Afghan leader -- not by foreigners, no matter how well intentioned. There are some in Washington who have encouraged the idea of finding willing "good" Taliban to make up a cadre of converted fighters. Again, such fighters -- even if they can be recruited -- have to be accepted by kindred tribesmen to become effective in strategic terms. Aside from possible use on a special operations scale, broader utility of ex-Taliban is severely limited.

By seeking to turn the Afghan situation into "the war that Bush forgot," Obama's administration has introduced a Vietnam aspect into a conflict that the previous administration had come to realize had become a strategic trap that, if not abandoned, had to be reduced to a special operations killing or converting program. The alternative discarded was to resort to a major build-up of U.S./NATO force levels to initiate a traditional campaign to overwhelm all indigenous counter-action.

Not only was special operations irregular warfare seemingly too base for the Obama White House to espouse, it was the form of war fighting that was contrary to the peculiar sensibilities of a professed liberal Washington leadership. In reality the Administration is more worried about domestic and foreign political fallout from an avowed "killing" campaign than it is over the fact of fighting the enemy in the field. 

The result is that once again the military is forced to fight with rules of engagement that not only limit but are contrary to sound war fighting principles. President Obama has established tactical goals for the theater that can be accomplished only by larger troop concentrations, then says he wants minimal force and "humane" methods utilized. For some reason President Obama has been encouraged to think an expanded, yet still constrained, conventional force performing in a pacification mode is operationally more effective than an uninhibited special operations dynamic backed up, if necessary, by a reserve of local and NATO conventional strike forces.

Shouldn't the war effort now be to keep the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from reconstituting itself rather than perpetuating an increasingly wide land war? Afghanistan is clearly a spec ops and covert activity job; that is the reason these capabilities have been theater specialized and deployed. The troops in the field can handle the work, but, in spite of lip service, the politicians in Washington appear to find it too rough.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.