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On Afghanistan, Obama Must Speak Up

It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.

On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.

On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.

And in the meantime there have been more “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan security personnel attacked coalition troops, bringing the total number of fatalities from such attacks this year to 51—a record high. As a result, the NATO command in Kabul has temporarily suspended most joint operations between American and Afghan troops, or, to be more precise, it has given regional two-star headquarters the prerogative to suspend such operations if the amount of risk incurred is judged to be unacceptable. Such operations, which are commonplace, will require a two-star general’s approval for the time being—at least until the current storm over the anti-Islam video, which has been much denounced and little watched, blows over. Advisory work at the battalion and above level will remain unaffected, and, with any luck, the temporary ban on lower-level operations can be lifted soon.

Partnering between U.S. and Afghan units, which necessarily involves sharing the hardship and danger of combat, is the single most effective way to improve the Afghans’ combat capabilities—and thus to ensure that the U.S. can draw down our troops without leading to a complete collapse of the country. If partnering is ended indefinitely, the results will be calamitous—for Afghanistan and for American interests in Afghanistan. Even a temporary halt to partnering will have an adverse impact on security, especially coming, as it does, just as commanders are completing an ill-advised drawdown ordered by President Obama to just 68,000 U.S. troops.

I don’t want to make too much (or too little) of these setbacks. There are, after all, losses and failures in all wars. The enemy, despite some setbacks in the south, remains far from defeated and is capable of audacious and professional operations. The Taliban strategy of encouraging insider attacks on coalition forces is proving particularly effective. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, notes, “It is a very serious threat to the campaign.”

You would think that under those circumstances it would be all the more important for Obama, the commander-in-chief, to go on television so that he can explain what is happening to the American (and Afghan) people and reassure them that his plan for Afghanistan remains on track—or else to explain what modifications in his plans he is making to deal with the present situation. If the suspension of partnered operations is only temporary, he should make that clear so that the Taliban cannot claim that they are chasing us out. If the suspension is to be more long-lasting, he must explain what impact this will have on his exit strategy.

Instead, of course, we are treated to more radio silence from the White House over this forgotten war. Little wonder that public support for the war effort continues to crater: When there is no alternative narrative to counterbalance the gloomy reports in the news, the public naturally believes that all is lost. I don’t think that’s the case, based on what I have seen during my own visits to Afghanistan. But the battle for hearts and minds on the home front is certainly being lost—or rather not contested by a White House that clearly has other priorities.


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