Barack Obama has been president for more than seven years now. But he still doesn’t seem to have learned the most elementary lesson of military command—namely that war is a test of wills and the side with the superior will usually (although not always) prevails.
In Afghanistan, to pick a prime example, Obama has been trying to do things by half measures ever since the start of his presidency. Unfortunately, this has been a continuation of the trend since George W. Bush neglected Afghanistan to focus U.S. resources on Iraq.
To his credit, Obama didn’t simply withdraw and cede the war to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. But he also didn’t take the steps that might have delivered a victory, defined as a stable Afghanistan able to defend itself against an Islamist insurgency.
Obama agreed to send more troops but capped their number at 100,000 (an utterly arbitrary figure) and imposed an 18-month timeline on their deployment (another arbitrary figure). The predictable result is that Afghanistan is more of a mess than ever: U.S. forces made some progress, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, but then began withdrawing too soon and allowed the Taliban to stage yet another resurgence.
It is simply ridiculous for the White House spokesman to assert, as he did on Friday, that “the next president will inherit a much better situation in Afghanistan than the one President Obama inherited.” In fact, the Taliban control more territory today than at any time since 2001.
To counter Taliban gains, U.S. commanders have been beseeching the White House to grant them permission to use American airpower to target the Taliban. But although the White House is willing to bomb the Taliban leader in Pakistan, Mullah Mansour, it has not been willing to bomb the Taliban inside of Afghanistan unless they directly threaten U.S. forces.
Even President Obama must eventually have realized that this was ridiculous, so last week he quietly decided to loosen the authorities—somewhat. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “The U.S. military will be able to conduct airstrikes in support of Afghan forces when there is a specific opportunity to make a ‘strategic gain’ on the battlefield against the Taliban… The powers approved by Mr. Obama also would enable U.S. forces to once again work more closely with conventional Afghan forces, accompanying them on some missions to provide advice and assistance in the field.”
But, as the Journal noted, quoting a “defense official,” “This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban.” It is, as the Journal wrote, a “half-measure: loosening the restriction but keeping the U.S. military on a reasonably short leash.”
Still to come is a decision on the future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Obama downsized the U.S. forces to 9,800 troops (yet another arbitrary figure) and had planned to pull all of them out before he leaves office. He has now made clear that will not happen, but the plan remains to cut U.S. force levels in half, to 5,500, by the end of the year. U.S. commanders want to avoid that downsizing, but Obama has not yet said what he will do. If I had to guess, I would say that he will choose a figure between 5,500 and 9,800—that would be typical of his style of “split the difference” decision-making in foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, no decision at all is expected on the urgent need to apply maximal pressure on Pakistan to cut off the Taliban—which would include the threat of ending U.S. subsidies to Pakistan and sanctioning it as a state sponsor of terrorism. That would be too radical a move for a president who is habitually ultra-cautious in his decision-making.
If only the Taliban were similarly bound by half-measures. But they have shown they are utterly dedicated to winning back power. So, too, Pakistan has shown no willingness to seriously rein in the Taliban. In fact, the more they—the Taliban and Pakistan—see that the U.S. is not serious about winning this war, the more they ramp up their attacks. Anyone familiar with the history of either this war or wars, in general, could have predicted as much. Half-measures simply don’t work in a life-or-death struggle.