On July 29th, Vice President Biden confirmed what many of us have long feared and suspected — the Obama administration intends to cut and run in Afghanistan well before the mission there is complete.
We’re in Afghanistan for one express purpose: al Qaeda, [which is a] threat to the United States. Al Qaeda: it exists in those mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are not there to nation-build. We’re not out there deciding we’re gonna turn this into a Jeffersonian democracy and build that country. We made it clear, we’re not there for 10 years. We are there to defeat al Qaeda, which is a clear and present danger to the United States, [and to stop it from] operating out of that area.
The problem with Biden’s statement is that nation-building is a necessary and integral part of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy; and counterinsurgencies typically take a long time to fight and to win. Indeed, according to General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, counterinsurgencies typically take some 14 years to prosecute.
Moreover, despite what conservative critics like Ralph Peters say, nation-building isn’t some liberal do-gooder project that we do because it makes us feel good. We nation-build because before we can leave Afghanistan, we need indigenous Afghan security forces and governmental entities to whom we can entrust authority and responsibility.
Biden’s comments are extremely disconcerting because they show that he is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. The question is: does the Vice President speak for the commander-in-chief?
I say this because in a counterinsurgency, the objective is not to kill your way to victory. That’s simply not feasible, as General Petraeus himself has acknowledged. The objective, instead, is to secure the population and isolate the enemy. Because when the enemy is isolated and deprived of his means of support within the population, he ceases to be factor
Thus we nation-build.
We build schools, hospitals and indigenous local governing bodies. We build security forces and tribal and municipal councils. We build basic infrastructure — roads, irrigation networks, water and sewage treatment plants et al. And we build-up — and buck-up — our allies: those Afghans who are risking life and limb to work with us so as to free their country from the savage grip of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The problem with Biden’s so-called counterterrorism strategy is that it won’t work: because the fundamental problem in Afghanistan is political, not military.
The country lacks adequate security and effective governance. And the only way to remedy this problem is to wage a classic (and necessarily long-term) counterinsurgency campaign to restore adequate security and at least a minimal level of effective governance. Afghanistan is simply too geographically complex and diffuse, too decentralized and unwieldy, and too populated and tribal to think that killing a select group of bad guys there will neutralize its terrorist threat.
Of course, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick W. Kagan, has observed, the U.S. military learned this lesson in Iraq:
Perhaps the most important lesson of Iraq that is transportable to Afghanistan is this: It is impossible to conduct effective counterterrorism operations (i.e., targeting terrorist networks with precise attacks on key leadership nodes) in a fragile state without conducting effective counterinsurgency operations (i.e., protecting the population and using economic and political programs to build support for the government and resistance to insurgents and terrorists).
In fact, Kagan notes, a counterterrorism policy was tried in Iraq in 2006, before the surge, and it failed miserably.
U.S. Special Forces teams had complete freedom to act against al-Qaeda in Iraq, supported by around 150,000 regular U.S. troops, Iraqi military and police forces of several hundred thousand, and liberal airpower. We killed scores of key terrorist leaders, including the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, in June 2006. But terrorist strength, violence, and control only increased over the course of that year. It was not until units already on the ground applied a new approach—a counterinsurgency approach—and received reinforcements that we were able to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (even without killing its new leader).
Why, then, is Biden promoting a counterterrorism policy that is destined to fail? Does he know something about the president’s plans and intentions that Obama himself has not yet fully revealed?
Maybe so. Obama has said that the United States will continue to help the Afghan people for many years to come, but that “that is different from us having troops on the ground.”
No it’s not. The only ones who can provide the Afghan people with the type of economic and developmental assistance that Obama says he favors are the men and women of the United States military. And even if, miraculously, international aid agencies grow more willing to help Afghanistan, they most certainly will require the safety and security blanket of the U.S. military.
So why the rush to leave Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter)? We’ve been in Germany and Japan, after all, for 65 years. What’s so bad about being in Afghanistan (or Iraq) for a decade or more?
The truth is that American military forces, forward deployed, are a stabilizing force for good in the world. And the idea of retreating back to fortress America is no longer tenable in an increasingly small and interdependent world.
Let’s do Afghanistan right. Let’s stabilize the country so that we never have to fight another war there. Otherwise we’ll be mired in an unending Afghan conflict that ultimately threatens the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan; and the results, then, truly could be catastrophic.
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