Joe Carter has already commented on George’s Will’s “lack of will” on Afghanistan. On the whole Joe is right: Will’s proposal would amount to nothing less than defeat. But it would be unfair to suggest that Will is simply running up the white flag. As William Kristol observes, Will concedes that we have a core national interest in Afghanistan—“to prevent reestablishment of Al Qaeda bases,” and thinks that mission can be achieved by other means. (Actually, the core national interest in Afghanistan are broader than that, e.g., Pakistan, but, for the sake of simplicity and for the sake of argument, let’s leave all that aside for now.)
The important point of contention regards the plausibility of Will’s proposal to achieve even that goal. Will says that “forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.” Kristol rightly wonders whether Will’s proposal would succeed in preventing the re-establishment of terror bases, and suggests that this “’comprehensively revised policy’ doesn’t sound much more engaged than U.S. Afghan policy in the 1990s.” Michael Gerson makes a similar point:
Airstrikes from a distance—the anti-terrorism strategy of the previous decade—would not have sufficed. Both government and camps needed to be removed. It is likely that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, at this point, would leave a vacuum filled by radical, triumphant elements of the Taliban, allied with al-Qaeda. Nothing about this strategic reality has changed—except for the advance of American exhaustion and forgetfulness.
Again, Kristol and Gerson are on target, but I have a quibble with the analogy to pre-9/11 Afghanistan. To be fair, the counter-terrorism strategy suggested by Will and others as an alternative to the broad-based counterinsurgency strategy being designed by General McChrystal, would not be nearly so “kind and gentle” as our Afghanistan policy in the 1990s. It would most certainly be much more kinetic than that. For the uninitiated the term kinetic means that we would be killing far more Taliban and Al Qaeda through Predator air strikes, and Special Forces direct action missions than did in the pre-9/11 era. The better analogy, I would suggest, is to the failed strategy in Iraq, prior to the “surge” or more appropriately the implementation of a new counter-insurgency strategy in early 2007.
Which is why, watching this debate unfold one can’t help having, with apologies to Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. Prior to the implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy under General Petreaus in early 2007 the U.S. military was, in large measure, committed to something very much akin to the strategy now proposed by Will. This small-footprint, high-tech, direct action, counterterrorist strategy, while not without some tactical successes, brought us the brink of disaster in Iraq, and to precipice of strategic and humanitarian catastrophe in the region. The implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy, most crucially the decision by Generals Petreaus and Odierno that US forces would no longer “commute to work” from large bases—the Iraq analogy to Will’s suggestion that “engagement” be conducted from “offshore” in Afghanistan) turned things around.
All of which brings us to a remarkable comment by David Ignatius in his Washington Post column “A Middle Way on Afghanistan“:
Obama will have to roll the dice when he decides on Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal’s broad [counterinsurgency] approach is risky, but so is the limited, counterterrorism alternative that Biden and others are advocating. In truth, the kinetic counterterrorism approach is what we’ve been doing—and it hasn’t been working.
I will resist the temptation to comment on the irony of Vice President Biden playing the role on Afghanistan that Donald Rumsfeld, the chief architect of the light-footprint Special Forces-centric strategy played in Iraq, and focus instead on Ignatius’ remarkable concession that the light footprint “kinetic counterterrorism approach” has not been working thus far in Afghanistan either—not in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, mind you, but post 9/11 Afghanistan. General McChrystal knows all this, of course, which is why the only game in town is the broad-based counterinsurgency strategy he is proposing, along with the increase in required troop strength. How, one wonders, is the choice “roll of the dice,” when the one option has proven to be such a failure?
President Obama told us during the campaign that Afghanistan was the “good war,” but nobody left or right could be sure it all wasn’t just a campaign ploy. We are about to find out because even if it is the “good war,” it is also the “long war.” He would have done well to reflect on the implications of that fact and how to explain to the American people why the burdens to be borne are worth the effort. If he doesn’t do so, and soon, we will have to declare defeat and withdraw. The American people will never buy the fraudulent claim that we can declare victory and withdraw. Not this time. Not with so much at stake.