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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Was Worth the Wait

December 3, 2009

Sometimes (despite the bestselling advice of guru Malcom Gladwell) it actually pays to think before you act.

President Obama thought long and hard about our role in Afghanistan. He thought and thought and thought, until he started feeling the heat from both the right and the left. It looked as if Obama’s chronic deliberation was going to be his undoing. (For George Bush the Elder it was “the vision thing.” For Obama, it was “the dithering thing.”) Perfectly sane commentators were starting to feel nostalgic for George Bush the Younger. At least Dubya was a “decider.”

On Tuesday, December 1, in his much-anticipated, analyzed, debated and deconstructed address at West Point, our rookie president finally revealed his war plan. It was worth the wait. In fact, he offered a textbook moderate solution (if moderates had textbooks) to an increasingly dangerous and unwieldy conflict.

Here are the realities of the Great Afghan War, both pro and con…

Pro:

  • The Taliban aided and abetted al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11
  • Although officially out of power, the Taliban is a resurgent force throughout much of Afghanistan 
  • Afghanistan’s Islamist terrorists have now spread their operations into neighboring (and nuclear-armed) Pakistan, going as far as to establish Sharia law in some areas — not a good thing
  • We need to break the back of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or the region will become a permanent breeding ground for worldwide terrorist activity

Con:

  • With its staggering debts still piling up, the U.S. simply can’t afford the continued costs of an extended war in Afghanistan
  • Lesson from Vietnam: we can’t win a war against guerrillas who have no capital, government or infrastructure to surrender; the only way to win is to kill every last enemy combatant
  • No world power has been able to subdue Afghanistan: not the British in the 19th century or the Soviets in the 20th
  • We can’t justify throwing away thousands of American lives in an unwinnable war

In short, you can make powerful and persuasive arguments both for and against this war. What’s a president to do?

Here’s Obama’s plan, in a nutshell: We’ll escalate our involvement in Afghanistan, but only for 18 months. We’re looking at a classic moderate “yes, but” solution: Yes, we need to ramp up the offense and knock the stuffing out of the Taliban (and al-Qaeda, while we’re at it). BUT we can’t shed our blood and money there forever; we have to do our damage quickly and memorably, then start getting the hell out.

Of course, a moderate can’t please everybody and often pleases nobody at all. Some commentators scratched their heads and wondered why Obama would escalate a war, then set a rigid date for withdrawal — as if we were playing a football game and had to watch the clock.

They missed the point. We DO have to watch the clock in Afghanistan, or we will surely bankrupt our already overextended empire and cause excessive loss of Americn life. We can’t win an open-ended war, because we’d have to kill every Islamist guerrilla in the region. Even then, more guerrillas would sprout up to take their place.

At the same time, we DO need to escalate our involvement in the war, and we need to do it before the tentacles of militant Islam extend their grip throughout South Asia.  Moderate solutions are rarely perfect, but they make the best of a messy world.

Afghanistan is more than a brushfire. We can’t expect to extinguish the flames of jihadism there in a mere 18 months. Fanatics don’t surrender easily, if ever. But if we can break their will to fight… if we can banish them to isolated pockets in the dry and dusty mountains, we will have done our job. The Afghan government can take it from there. 

Bravo, Mr. President. And good luck!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla permalink
    December 4, 2009 11:55 am

    I credit Obama with finally acknowledging that we are engaged in a great struggle with a deadly enemy, and I was particularly heartened by the fact that he chose to make this acknowledgment at West Point, which seemed to indicate a tacit acceptance on his part that he is, in fact the commander-in-chief of America’s military, despite his obvious discomfort with military objectives.

    But, then again, maybe not. Maybe it was just for the photo op. And maybe his seemingly endless indecision over whether to send more troops was a result of his inability to come up with a “politically correct” explanation for doing so.

    This is my problem with Obama. He seems to me not so much thoughtful as calculated. Not so much assertive as cagey. And not so much courageous as arrogant. I don’t say this with any satisfaction, because he is my president. But this was, perhaps, the strangest war speech ever given by an American president.

    I sincerely wish that I could join you in congratulating Obama on his strategy. But it seems too tepid and unclear to me.

    Not once was the word “victory” spoken. I’m still not entirely sure why, if this is an “unwinnable” war, as you say, we don’t just get the hell out now? How many lives are expendable in the pursuit of….honorable defeat? half-assed success? As George Orwell said, the quickest way to end a war is to lose it. Victory comes at great cost of blood and treasure, but that cost is justified in the pursuit of a goal, a mission.

    What is our goal in Afganistan? As far as I can tell from the President’s speech, it is to do some serious damage and then get out. I don’t want anyone’s son or daughter – or father or mother – to die in the pursuit of “serious damage.” What constitutes “excessive loss”? If we are pursuing victory….well, ok, but define that victory, tell us why it is righteous, pursue it with all of the force that we can muster, win, and then get out.

    I fully understand that Obama must tread lightly with his base here. If he is perceived as a “war president” many of them will turn against him. But, like it or not, this is now Obama’s war, and I wish he had defined its mission in less half-hearted terms (eek, perhaps I am not a moderate after all?).

  2. December 4, 2009 1:32 pm

    Priscilla: I can understand your reluctance to cheer for Obama’s “tepid” war strategy. You’re right: there was no mention of victory. That’s because the war is unwinnable, but of course the president couldn’t put it in those terms. We’re not fighting a sovereign nation; we’re clashing with scattered fanatical guerrilla warriors and terrorists. These guys never surrender, so we can never claim total victory. All we can do is drive them back into the hills and (possibly, if we’re “persuasive” enough) break their will to continue the struggle.

    We certainly can’t commit to an open-ended war against religious fanatics; we’d be in it for a century or until we’re bankrupted, whichever comes first. I really think Obama’s timed commitment, as unsatisfying as it sounds, is the only realistic option. Do some major damage, then get out. If we do enough damage, maybe we can prevent the Islamists from taking over Pakistan, getting the Bomb into their hands and using it against India (or us!). We sure do live in “interesting” times, don’t we?

  3. December 4, 2009 1:37 pm

    Oh, and you’re probably right about Obama as “calculating” rather than merely thoughtful (although I think he’s both). He knows he can’t alienate his base, so he’s in a difficult spot and has to tread carefully.

    • Priscilla permalink
      December 5, 2009 1:37 am

      We agree that a war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. It’s barely even a country, really – just a bunch of tribal groups with tenuous ties to a centralized government, itself very corrupt. Plus, Al Qaeda is now looking to train and stage its operations from Somalia, anyway. So far as I understand, the original goal of the war was to topple the Taliban and kill as many Al Qaeda as possible. Afghanistan has never had the strategic importance of Iraq, and I question why we are escalating the fight there. The Taliban is not our enemy (not our friends certainly, but not the enemy that we’re fighting) and, if there are more enemy Al Qaeda to be killed elsewhere, then why are we expending so much of our military resources in Afghanistan?

      And how can we possibly back a strategy that says, in essence, “We’ll run around Afghanistan fighting and dying for 19 months, and then we’ll withdraw, hopefully having accomplished something.” Young men and women will lose their lives for this??

      Victory has to be the goal. But it is victory over terrorism that we need, and, unfortunately, our President has determined that we are no longer fighting a “War on Terror”, so we’ve lost sight of our mission.

      It is Obama’s job as Commander-in-Chief to define our military strategy and rally us to support the troops in whatever mission will lead to the defeat of our enemies…..but I’m afraid that he sees his job as trying to satisfy both the hawks (“yes, we’ll have a surge!) and the doves (“but we’ll give up in 19 months!”), in the pursuit of political victory. I would not want to die in that cause.

      • December 5, 2009 11:49 am

        Priscilla: The only apt analogy I can think of is why we weed our gardens. We know we’ll never vanquish all the weeds (at least I won’t); they’ll be coming back at us as soon as they regroup. But still we weed, because a relatively weed-free garden for a month or so is better than a weed-choked garden all summer long. (Of course, very few people ever died weeding.)

        In the larger scheme of things, I think we have to realize that everything is temporary on this planet… even the mountains and the continents. If we can sweep away most of the enemy activity in Afghanistan for 10 or 20 years, we’ve bought ourselves another 10 or 20 years of relative peace. But then there’s Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and Indonesia, and wherever the fanatics decide to move next.

        You raise a valid point about al-Qaeda vs. the Taliban as the real enemy. The problem with fighting al-Qaeda (as with any terrorist organization) is that they have no territory of their own; they can shift their operations anywhere in the world, including Europe. Obviously we can’t fight them everywhere they pop up, so we’re fighting soldiers of a toppled government (the Taliban) that has allied itself with them. It’s sort of like our rationale for fighting the Italians during WWII, even though they posed no direct threat to us.

        Ultimately, here’s the only way we’re going to beat al-Qaeda with any finality: secretly launch a worldwide anti-fundamentalist Islamic movement that debunks their militant beliefs and causes recruits to abandon the cause. As you can see, it’s going to be a LONG struggle.

  4. December 5, 2009 6:25 pm

    I like the weeding bit. Is pot legal in your state, or do you grow under lights? (Ever had a heering reefer/). I digress. Anyway, I think of T/AQ as a termite problem. Leave them alone and eventually your house will come tumbling down. They T/AQ/Islamic extremists have been around a long time. America, not so long on patience, looking for the quick fix and mired in partisanship faces a big challenge; look at those 15 foot termite mounds.

  5. December 6, 2009 10:55 am

    dduck: Those termite mounds have been growing, all right. But at least termites can be exterminated. I’m not so sure about Islamist jihadists.

  6. Priscilla permalink
    December 6, 2009 10:46 pm

    Weeds, termites, whatever ( I was actually thinking ants, myself) the answer is the same…you kill them, they come back. You kill them again – and then again and again. And, if you give up, they win. And if you’re really determined to defeat them, you not only kill them, but eliminate the conditions in which they thrive.

    George W. Bush’s presidency was in many ways a failure, I think he was spot on in describing the War on Terror as a struggle that would last for generations and would need to be fought on many fronts and with many different weapons, not all of them military.

    We can’t have it both ways, which is what Obama is trying to do. We are either at war or we are not. If we are at war, then we must define the enemy and the strategy needed to defeat that enemy. If we are NOT at war, then we have no business asking our military to put their lives on the line. This is not a police operation….no one has asked us to defend them. Obama has said that this is vital to our national security. Say what? It’s vital now, but it won’t be in July of 2011?

    What the heck is a heering reefer?

  7. December 7, 2009 12:21 pm

    Priscilla: What neither Bush nor Obama has admitted (Obama probably knows it but won’t say it) is that the war is unwinnable, for all the reasons laid out above. All we can do is damage the jihadists, not defeat them.

    In a war on terror that could last for generations, whose lives and money are we prepared to volunteer? A continuous war would drain our resources and kill too many of our soldiers. We can’t afford either, so Obama is opting for what I think is the only sensible strategy: strike hard, do as much damage as possible (remember, any war against fanatical guerillas is impossible to win), then take a breather.

    This isn’t war as our fathers knew it… nobody is going to surrender the way the Germans and Japanese did. I just wish we could brainwash the fanatics into seeing that the Koran (like our own Bible) contains a lot of ancient nonsense that shouldn’t be taken literally — and that it was written by fallible men, not dictated by God.

  8. December 16, 2009 11:39 am

    What people of the west don’t quite grasp is that the Taliban and other jihadists are living hundreds of years in the past in terms of religion and culture. Think about it, Christianity started a few hundred years prior to Islam, and many Christian kingdoms and organizations did exactly what the jihadists are doing today — looking to rid the world of the “heathens”.

    Unfortunately, in this case, they cannot be reasoned with. You cannot take out their capital and some leadership, and expect “victory”. The only way to achieve “victory” is to enlighten them… but enlightenment is a choice, and not an order. Therefor, the only way is, as Rick states, is to either kill them all, or leave them alone. Personally, as a pragmatist, I prefer to leave them be… keep a vigilant eye on them, but leave them be.

    • December 17, 2009 11:43 pm

      LOUDelf: Interesting historical perspective, but Islam has had over 1200 years to grow out of its youthful militant phase. It hasn’t. In fact, the Islamic world was more progressive and enlightened a thousand years ago than it is now — not a hopeful sign.

      Yes, it’s futile to fight them, because we’d have to kill every single Muslim militant in order to declare victory. By contrast, all they have to do is detonate a few well placed nuclear devices in the U.S.

      But we can’t allow them to spread terror, either. Hence Obama’s dilemma (and I don’t envy him). It’s a hopeless mess, really: all we can do is launch periodic attacks to contain the fanatics until a moderate Islamic movement discredits them. That might happen 20 or 50 or 100 years from now… or never.

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