As promised, I want to follow up on my earlier post on George Will’s recent, and much commented upon, column on Afghanistan—in this instance laying out the reasons why I disagree with what he recommends.
To recapitulate: Will urges the United States to adopt a “comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes, and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
But what the best minds in the military will tell you—what the people who have actually overseen counterinsurgency success will say—is that drones, cruise missiles, and air strikes will not succeed without the appropriate human intelligence, without some kind of military infrastructure in place, without eyes and ears to direct us to the appropriate targets. This requires boots on the ground.
In addition, the Taliban continues to maintain sanctuaries in Afghanistan. As General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Michael Gerson: “You can’t take out sanctuaries with predator strikes. We are not going to carpet-bomb. Distance puts limits on what you can do.” So the goal Will wants to achieve (to effectively strike against the Taliban) is impossible to achieve with the strategy he endorses (moving offshore and relying on technology). The wise approach is a counterinsurgency strategy tailored to the situation in Afghanistan—which is precisely what the new American commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, is in the process of designing.
The underlying assumption of Will’s column appears to be that success in any meaningful sense is impossible in Afghanistan. We should accept this reality, he seems to be arguing, rather than lose more American lives on behalf of a lost cause. The question, then, is whether Will’s premise is correct. The answer, I believe, is no, though no one can be sure at this stage. We haven’t yet tested that proposition—and until we do, premature withdrawal is folly.
Nonsense, critics of the war will respond; we have been in Afghanistan since 2001. How much longer do we have to stay to figure out that the Afghan war is unwinnable? To which the answer is: long enough to give the newly appointed General McChrystal and General Petraeus the chance to try to do in Afghanistan what Petraeus did in Iraq, which is to take a war we were losing and turn things around.
The Iraq experience is instructive. Let’s stipulate that the countries are vastly different, including the fact that one (Afghanistan) has primarily a rural insurgency, while the other (Iraq) had both rural and urban insurgencies; that the violence in Afghanistan is being driven primarily by indigenous forces, while much (though certainly not all) of the violence in Iraq was being driven by outside forces (al-Qaeda). Nevertheless, the core principles of traditional counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy—winning over the local population, training/building up the indigenous army and police forces, and disaggregating the “reconcilables” from the “irreconcilables”—still apply.
Many people forget how hopeless things seemed in Iraq in December 2006. It was caught in a death spiral. In some important respects, things in Iraq were worse than they are in Afghanistan. Many people were saying the surge could not work. Iraq was a lost cause; better to pull out than stay in.
But the new COIN strategy began to show progress within a matter of months—and by September 2007, things were demonstrably better in Iraq. The hope is that McChrystal and Petraeus and those under their command can re-create, with all the appropriate qualifiers, what the surge did in Iraq. Given their track record, they certainly deserve the chance to try. Both men are hardheaded realists. They care deeply for the young men and women in their command. And they would not send our armed forces into a deathtrap or commit them to a hopeless cause.
Does this mean success is foreordained? Of course not. We could do the right thing in Afghanistan and still not succeed. But if we pull back, we are sure to lose. And here it’s worth pausing over the consequences of defeat in Afghanistan. It would consign the people of that nation to a brutal existence under one of the most repressive regimes (the Taliban) in history. And it would do enormous damage to our efforts to stabilize Pakistan—”a nation that matters,” according to Will. The Pakistanis already have questions about our staying power; pulling out of Afghanistan would confirm their fears, to say nothing of making the border region with Afghanistan even less calm and controlled than it is now.
Will’s strategy would also provide terrorists with an incalculable psychological victory. We know our retreats from Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia were extremely influential in the thinking of Osama bin Laden. Here’s what he said in 1998:
We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and more than before that the American soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, they ran in defeat and America forgot about all the hoopla and media propaganda after leaving the Gulf War. After a few blows, they forgot about this title [leader of a new world order] and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would be orders of magnitudes worse.
Retreating offshore would undermine confidence. among allies and adversaries alike, in America’s will and word. And it would supply the Taliban and al-Qaeda with a home base and a safe haven after having been largely dislodged. That is why Afghanistan matters. Mr. Will fears that some of these arguments, if taken seriously, would lead us to nation-building invasions of Somalia and Yemen. But of course the key difference is that we are already in Afghanistan in a way we are not in Somalia or Yemen. That matters. Once you start a war, there is an obligation to see it through to success and to exhaust every reasonable option in that effort.
In addition, as Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel point out in their Wall Street Journal op-ed, the U.S. has a number of major strengths in this mission, from the Afghan people wanting success, to their fierce dislike of the Taliban, to progress by the Afghan Army and police, to an improved economy. More aggressive antidrug efforts by U.S. and NATO forces have contributed to a significant decline in illegal opium crops in Afghanistan, damaging a critical source of cash for the insurgency, according to a new study by the UN.
None of this is to pretend that Afghanistan is easy, or that success will be quick or cost free, or that it is not now caught in a downward spiral. But that spiral can be arrested and even reversed if we put in place the right strategy. That is what McChrystal and Petraeus are in the process of doing. They cannot perform miracles, and we shouldn’t expect them to. But given the right resources and enough time, they may well lead us to eventual success. We owe them—to say nothing of our armed forces, the people of Afghanistan, and the national-security interests of the United States—those two things.
George Will remains a powerful and eloquent voice on many issues and, on a personal note, was a key figure in my own intellectual journey (his small book Statecraft as Soulcraft had a formative influence on me). I remain indebted to him, and so does the entire conservative movement, for the body of his work. But on Afghanistan and now Iraq, his counsel would, I fear, lead to calamity.