Commentary Magazine


How to Win in Afghanistan

Which way will the Obama administration go in Afghanistan? The New York Times Op-Ed page today has two articles that lay out starkly different analyses of the current situation and recommendations for the future.

One article by Fred Kagan, Kim Kagan, and me, following our recent trip around Afghanistan, concludes that the war is eminently winnable. While the situation has been deteriorating, it is not nearly as bad as Iraq was before the surge — and not nearly as bad as selective media reporting would make you believe. The biggest problem is simply a lack of resources. With more troops and better command and control arrangements, we can push back the Taliban. (A longer, more detailed version of our findings will be available in the Weekly Standard tomorrow.)

The other article, by my former boss, Les Gelb, offers a far more gloomy analysis. Les claims, “We can’t defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan” and argues “for the withdrawal of American forces, though economic and military aid would continue.” Instead of relying on a large troop presence, he suggests we could employ a combination of diplomatic and military measures to contain the Taliban and al Qaeda: “Taliban leaders must have good reason to fear America’s military reach. Their leaders could be hit by drones or air strikes. The same goes for their poppy fields, from which they derive considerable income.”

The problem with this strategy is that there is absolutely no evidence that long-range air strikes and commando raids have ever succeeded in defeating a determined insurgency. That’s essentially the strategy we’ve been pursuing in Afghanistan since 2001 and it has been a notable flop. As we note in our Times Op-Ed, forces operating from afar cannot get the intelligence necessary to target insurgent leaders. That can only come from having troops living among and securing the populace.

Moreover, if we leave Afghanistan to its own devices, why would the government in Kabul cooperate with us in facilitating strikes that are sure to kill some innocent civilians? Much more likely, Afghan officials will strike their own deals with the Taliban (as the Pakistan government has already been doing), thus turning Afghanistan into what it was before 9/11 — a major terrorist safe haven. That, in turn, would further endanger the already fragile government of Pakistan.

Somehow Les does not reassure me about the consequence of his “extrication strategy” when he writes: “Withdrawal need not mean defeat for America and victory for terrorists, if the full range of American power is used effectively. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger proved that by countering the nasty aftereffects of Vietnam’s fall to communism in a virtuoso display of American power.” Notwithstanding that “virtuoso display”, the fall of Vietnam was a geopolitical catastrophe. It resulted in the loss of millions of lives in Southeast Asia, encouraged communist aggression from Angola to Afghanistan, hollowed out the U.S. military, and generally paralyzed the United States as a global actor throughout the late 1970s.

There is absolutely no reason why we should have to go through such trauma again. The Taliban are not nearly as powerful as the Iraqi insurgents, much less the Viet Cong. We can defeat them if we have the will do so.

Does President Obama possess that will? It’s too early to say for sure but the early signs are promising. He has already agreed to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Now his administration is concluding its review of Afghan policy, and if this Associated Press dispatch is to be believed, the result is much closer to the counterinsurgency strategy that the Kagans and I recommend than it is to the withdraw-and-strike-from-afar option laid out by Gelb. According to the AP:

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration was expected to endorse a doctrine of counterinsurgency that has military and civilian components and that scales back U.S. expectations for Afghan democracy and self-sufficiency. A main theme is the premise that the military alone cannot win the war, officials said.

“The review was expected to focus on containing the Taliban and the proliferation of lesser-known militant groups, providing a greater sense of security and stability for Afghan civilians and increasing the size and proficiency of the Afghan armed forces.

Aside from the idea of scaling back “U.S. expectations,” which isn’t necessary and could be counterproductive, that strategy sounds right to me. Only if we create stability and security in Afghanistan can we prevent that country from becoming a terrorist safe haven. A strategy of long-range strikes and troop withdrawals is as misguided in Afghanistan as it would have been in Iraq (where many of the same experts were recommending it). If President Obama understands that and acts accordingly, he will deserve credit for turning around a failing war effort.

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