How We Must Fight

July 30th, 2010 at 1:42 pm | 14 Comments |

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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.


You can follow John Guardiano on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano

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14 Comments so far ↓

  • TerryF98

    “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?”

    Because we are broke and Bush spent all the Chinese money on the wars. If we are to get anywhere with the deficit we need to cut defense spending drastically. 50% would be a good start.

  • Annikan

    Isnt that just what the Soviet Union tried to do in the 80s? And the British Empire before them? I think because of its unique geography, Afghanistan is just a wild bronco that isnt meant to be tamed.
    Al Quaeda is effectively done over there already. The job was done on them when we hit their headquarters in Tora Bora years ago. Al Quaeda is now much more organized and effective in Yemen and Somalia.
    The “Taliban” are just a bunch of local Pashtun warlords, who, without their Al Quaeda backing wont really be able to control much more than their area of the country again.

  • Annikan

    “So why the rush to leave Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter)? We’ve been in Germany and Japan, after all, for 65 years.”

    Yes, and that should stop too. And Germany and Japan should reimburse the American taxpayer for paying their defense tab for all these years. No wonder Europe could afford all those social programs!

  • Watusie

    You lost me at “cut and run”. Using that phrase announces that everything that follows is going to be Coulter-ish nonsense. Try again.

  • Moderate

    I typically blanche at Guardiano’s jingoism, but he’s not saying anything controversial. If we withdraw from Afghanistan, it will get worse.

    (Whether that’s acceptable is a different matter.)

  • Oldskool

    “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 ”

    We bought off former enemies in Iraq and they agreed to fight al-qaeda which changed the whole dynamic.

    Hard to disagree that A-stan needs to be rebuilt but we’re broke and the war is losing support. We have ignored two lessons from Vietnam;
    1) what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, ie, overwhelming force, was lost when we stomped into Iraq. Thank your friendly neighborhood neocons for that.
    2) wars can’t be fought without support from the “homeland”. God I don’t miss that word.

  • easton

    Dude, it is Joe Biden. You really are going to take anything he says as Confirmation?

  • sinz54

    Biden: 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.
    That’s a relief.

    A Stone Age country comprised of backward Muslim fanatics whose biggest crop is opium sounds like a bit of a challenge for nation-building.

    Guardiano: 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.
    Those aren’t equivalent.

    A backward country can still have a powerful government with a powerful army. (Lots of nations were like that in centuries past.)

    What we cannot do without a titanic effort is upgrade Afghanistan’s society and its culture. For example, are we going to force even the most traditionalist, most backward tribal areas to grant women total equality? There are still parts of Afghanistan where it’s considered taboo for a woman to even argue with a man about anything. And are we going to stamp out the poppy production? Replace it with what? Hooking rugs?

  • RedlegJS

    wasnt the story that americans voted democrats in to end the wars the past 2 elections cycles. END THE WARS. With all this talk about fiscal responsibility how can we justify spending all this money in a country that hates us, their neighbor(pakistan)which funnels money to al queda. This is insane. Kids are dying for no reason.

  • cporet

    Oh, by the way, the Germans and Japanese stopped killing American troops in 1945.

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  • Gramps

    First off John…Thank you for your service to our county, Marine!

    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.

    It’s your last paragraph I find most poignant…
    You gotter’ right John, Pakistan is the name of the game.

    Until and unless we convince the Pak’s to neutralize the insurgents in their western tribal areas, we’re gonna be the sorry m’fken’ losers of that damn despicable, no-win, war, in Afghanistan …

    All diplomatic and military means… [ADMM]…!

    The Pakistanis have 90 percent of all their forces on their southern border with India and their intelligence agency the ISI, is in cahoots with the Muslim insurgents in Afghanistan.

    Recipe for defeat…You betcha…as Sarah would say…

    I just wrote the ingredients for both winning and losing, fer you Marine…
    You had your analysis “spot on” with respect to Pakistan.

  • S.L. Toddard

    Is there another John Guardiano in the right wing blogosphere? For some reason whenever I see his name I expect to read the writings of a sane conservative realist, and am surprised each time to find that he is a conquest-craving imperialist and warmonger.

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