I recently chatted with some U.S. Army Special Forces troops who had served last year in Afghanistan. Green Berets are usually gung-ho, but these guys seemed a bit worn down and pessimistic about the situation. They complained that Afghan troops aren’t willing to back them up in the hardest fights and praised instead the militiamen they hire to guard their own compounds — part of the tribal forces that the Special Forces (and CIA) have been using for years. Above all they talked of how little they could do in the vast landscape of Afghanistan. Special Forces deploy in 12-man A Teams, and when they were in Afghanistan, often they had little or no backup from other coalition forces. The “snake eaters” are super soldiers, but there is only so much that a dozen of them can do in such a hostile and punishing environment.
Listening to their conversation took me back to similar conversations I had with other U.S. troops about Iraq. From 2003 to 2007 I heard troops who were increasingly dispirited by the daunting challenge of trying to pacify Iraq without a good strategy or enough troops. All that changed in 2007, when the surge gave a newfound sense of purpose to the men and women on the ground while also convincing the Iraqis that the U.S. was out to win the war. That boost to morale was an important component of the surge’s success, and it is something that President Obama should keep in mind as he gets ready to announce his policy on Afghanistan.
If he sends substantially fewer troops than Gen. McChrystal wants, he risks perpetuating the sense of malaise reflected by these Green Berets, who knew that they were essentially fighting a holding action without the capacity to achieve decisive results. Obama had better use his televised talk to the nation not only to announce a robust reinforcement package but also to make clear that he expects the troops to defeat the Taliban — not to prepare the way for a rapid “exit strategy.” No one wants to risk his or her life to secure a more expeditious withdrawal. If we’re going to commit more troops — and we should — the only proper objective is victory. That is a word that has been missing so far from Obama’s vocabulary. I hope it is not MIA on Tuesday night.