George Will doubles down on his call for retreat in Afghanistan with one to leave Iraq immediately. (He’s done this before on Iraq, so it hardly comes as a surprise.) Robert Kagan, also writing in the Washington Post, objects:
It’s hard to imagine a more disastrous blow to vital American security interests than the double surrender George Will is now proposing. To withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously would be to abandon American interests and allies in the Persian Gulf and greater Middle East. The consequences of such a retreat would be to shift the balance of influence in the region decidedly away from pro-U.S. forces in the direction of the most radical forces in Tehran, as well as toward al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, to name just the most prominent beneficiaries. Long-time allies of the United States would either have to accommodate to these radical forces and fall under their sway, or take matters into their own hands. What Will is proposing would constitute the largest strategic setback in American history.
[. . .]
Yes, the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan are difficult. But they are far from unmanageable. Iraq has benefited immensely from the American surge and the political processes it has made possible. Afghanistan is in bad shape, but a concerted effort by our military and civilian forces, as well as by our allies, can produce stability and the possibility of progress with time, as top military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have attested.
Will wants us to commit preemptive suicide for fear of being killed. But we need to show some of the patience and fortitude previous generations of Americans have shown, and in far more dire circumstances.
There is a certain consistency in Will’s disdain for both endeavors. While liberals for a time, before they decided otherwise, made a distinction between “good” and “bad” wars, both Iraq and Afghanistan are battlefronts in the same war, and defeat in either, let alone both, would have dire consequences for the U.S. and the West.
The danger here, of course, is that the president, already ailing from domestic setbacks and facing an increasingly hostile electorate, will lose nerve in one or both battlefronts, glob on to the arguments of the Pat Buchanan/George Will/Russ Feingold contingent, and refuse to do what is necessary to secure victory in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He would do well to listen to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who seems now, finally, to be convinced that we need to increase troop strength in Afghanistan:
“I take seriously General McChrystal’s point that the size . . . of the footprint depends . . . in significant measure . . . on the nature of the footprint and the behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans,” Gates said.
“If they interact with the Afghans in a way that gives confidence to the Afghans that we’re their partners and their allies, then the risks that I have been concerned about the footprint becoming too big . . . is mitigated.” In particular, Gates cited efforts by McChrystal to distribute U.S. troops to better protect the population and reduce civilian casualties.
Gates also rebuffed as “unrealistic” arguments that the administration should narrow the mission to one of counterterrorism in Afghanistan and along the Pakistani border. Instead, he said that uprooting terrorist groups requires a more holistic campaign to shore up internal security — the type of effort McChrystal and other top U.S. military leaders envision.
“Even if you want to focus on counterterrorism, you cannot do that successfully without local law enforcement, without internal security, without intelligence,” he said.
We spent years, sacrificed blood and treasure, and sapped public support for the Iraq war learning the painful lesson that we cannot win these conflicts with a “light footprint” or solely with high-tech gadgets far from the conflict. Obama, if he is smart and courageous, will learn from that experience and listen to the counsel of Gates and Kagan rather than to those preaching retreat — and ultimately defeat.