Obama’s Dithering May Have Lost the War

November 25th, 2009 at 11:22 am | 55 Comments |

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The media is reporting that President Obama plans to announce his Afghan troop decision in a prime time address next week. What the media is not reporting, and will not report, is that because of his dithering, indecision and rhetorical backsliding, the president already has made key wartime decisions; and these decisions, unfortunately, have made victory in Afghanistan more difficult and problematic.

Thus, a key question now is whether the president and his advisers will continue to talk down Afghanistan and, in so doing, make defeat there a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider:

In war, perceptions matter; but in counterinsurgency warfare, perceptions are everything. That’s because the objective is to win over the populace, which is the center of gravity in this type of fight. The objective is to isolate the enemy from the populace so that an administrative state can develop and a civil society can flourish.

Indeed, isolating the enemy from the populace will neuter the enemy and render him impotent. And, when the administrative state and civil society become sufficiently mature and robust, and when Afghan military and police forces are sufficiently trained and operationally ready, they can do what U.S. military forces are now doing: take the fight to the enemy and protect the populace.

For these reasons, it is critically important that U.S. political and military leaders send a clear and resolute message to friend and foe alike — to wit: that the United States is intent on achieving victory and will stop at nothing to ensure that victory is achieved.

Despite all its flaws and missteps, this was the message that the Bush administration sent forth when it persevered in Iraq — and especially when it embraced General Petraeus and “the surge” of U.S. forces there. And the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, political and tribal leaders; Suni, Shia and Kurdish factions; and al-Qaeda-led insurgents all got the message:

President Bush and the United States are serious. They intend to fight and to win. They can be neither stopped nor dissuaded. Indeed, no amount of improvised explosives and combat and civilian deaths can tire or deter them. Best to make peace while we can, and to reconcile with the Iraqi government while we can, before we become completely irrelevant to our country’s rapidly changing political landscape.

In short, the surge in Iraq worked because the American will to win, as epitomized by President Bush and U.S. military leaders on the ground, was clear and unmistakable. And that will to win was backed up by both hard and soft power, courtesy of the awesome might and generous heart of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

The “hard power” was delivered through ruthlessly effective counterinsurgency operations, which terrorized the terrorists and killed and captured thousands of al-Qaeda-led insurgents.

The “soft power” was delivered through American military patrols and civil affairs actions, which proved to the Iraqi people that while there is no more effective fighting force than the United States Army and Marine Corps, there is also no more kind and more generous a group of people.

“Let every Iraqi know, and let the world know, that there is no better friend and no worse enemy” than an American soldier, sailor, airman, or marine.

That’s what Marine Corps General James N. Mattis told us when he was commanding U.S. forces in Iraq. And, despite the glaring exception of Abu Ghraib and the hyping of Abu Ghraib by the American media, General Mattis was correct: The kindness and generosity of U.S. servicemen and women is legendary and awe-inspiring. I only wish we saw more of this reality on American television.

I certainly saw this kindness and generosity with my own eyes while serving as a marine in Iraq. And so, too, did thousands of Iraqi children who will never forget their kind American benefactors who, resolutely and with great compassion, protected them from evil.

But the confluence of forces that righted Iraq is now absent in Afghanistan. An insufficient number of troops tasked with too many missions is a big part of the problem. But an even bigger problem is the lack of national purpose and resolve. Simply put, does the Obama administration intend to win in Afghanistan?

If so, it sure doesn’t sound like it. The president, after all, doesn’t talk about victory or winning; those words are conspicuously absent from his vocabulary. Instead, the talk out of his administration is all about “exit strategies” and “off-ramps.”

ABC News, for instance, reports that, according to one White House aide, “Obama wants a clear picture of the ‘American bridge’ out of Afghanistan.” Says another aide: The president has insisted that “we’re not going to be in Afghanistan for another eight years.”

“A decent part of it [the president’s strategy],” says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, “is not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agrees: “We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan,” she says. “We’re not interested in any long-term, you know, presence there.”

More ominously, today’s Washington Post reports that even as the president plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, he is simultaneously preparing to define victory down in the event that a counterinsurgency there proves difficult to win. Thus, “White House advisers say Obama is looking for ‘off-ramps’ that would allow him to adopt a strategy more narrowly focused on al-Qaeda if the one he chooses is not showing results.”

Thank goodness President Bush didn’t define victory down in Iraq — even though this is exactly what the Washington cognoscenti, led by the Iraq Study Group, agitated for: Declare victory (prematurely) and bring the troops home, they urged.

And thank goodness President Truman didn’t define victory down in Germany and Japan. Consequently, American troops have been stationed there, in both countries, for more than half-a-century.

American forces, likewise, have been stationed in Kosovo ever since President Clinton sent them there in 1999. The U.S. military is a force for good in the world, and our forward-presence abroad is typically a helpful and stabilizing influence.

Why, then, preclude the option of keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan for another eight years or more? Why communicate a desire to quickly leave that country? All this does is signal weakness and irresolution in the wake of a determined and implacable foe who might now be inclined to try and wait us out.

Then there is Obama’s studied refusal to promptly send reinforcements to General McChrystal. This despite the general’s August 30 urgent request for tens upon thousands of new troops.

“I’ve been asking not only General McChrystal, but all of our commanders who are familiar with the situation — as well as our civilian folks on the ground — a lot of questions,” Obama told reporters recently. “I want to make sure that we have tested all the assumptions we’re making before we send young men and women into harm’s way.”

With all due respect to the President of the United States, this is nonsensical. The reality is that President Obama already has sent men and women into harm’s way in Afghanistan. Last spring, for example, he ordered more than 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part and parcel of his “comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

In all, there are nearly 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and they are asking for help. Their lives are on the line, and they are requesting reinforcements. Yet, their commander-in-chief has been telling them for the past three months: “Not yet. You must wait. We need to reevaluate our strategy.”

But the problem is not General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, which most knowledgeable observers agree is the only possible way to achieve victory in Afghanistan. The problem, instead, is that the number of boots on the ground there is insufficient to execute that strategy — and that the administration has signaled vacillation and uncertainty about whether it even wants to pursue victory in Afghanistan.

This, of course, has only emboldened the Taliban and al-Qaeda while frightening the Afghan populace, which is worried that U.S. forces may leave too soon. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reports on the plaintive plea of one Haji Mohammed Khan, district administrator for Nawa in Helmand province:

‘Please,’ Khan said in a low voice, his sad eyes looking directly at his guests, ‘don’t let us be here alone. You used your young people, your vehicles, your helicopters to help us. Please don’t turn around and leave unfinished your business here… We believe in the United States. We want the United States as a friend.’

The Times says that “Helmand province appear[s] as divided as officials in Washington” about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan; but my experience in Iraq, and my discussions with U.S. troops who have served in Afghanistan, tell me that’s not true. Most ordinary Afghans, I believe, share Mr. Khan’s fear: They are worried that U.S. soldiers and marines will abandon them and leave the country with the dreaded Taliban and al-Qaeda victorious and in charge.

Certainly, polling data shows conclusively that the Afghan people do not wish to be ruled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and that they view the U.S. military as a protective force for good in their country.  A recent poll conducted by three major news networks in Great Britain, Germany and the United States, for instance, found that 90% of the Afghan people “said they opposed Taliban fighters.”

Moreover, “the Taliban were seen as the biggest danger to the country by 58% of [the Afghan] people. The United States,” by contrast “was in fourth place with eight percent” of the Afghan people viewing them as their country’s biggest danger. What’s more, 69% of Afghans “thought it was a good thing that the U.S.-led forces had come to Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban (down from 88% in 2006).”

The U.S. military’s failure to crush the dreaded and resurgent Taliban surely accounts for its declining (but still strong) support amongst the Afghan people. “A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents,” explained General McChrystal in his confidential August 30 assessment.

“I believe the short-term fight will be decisive,” McChrystal wrote. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

To be sure, success in Afghanistan is still possible. General McChrystal, in fact, says exactly that in his August 30 assessment. However, the president’s dithering and indecision have made the situation there increasingly precarious and more difficult for our troops.

It is also important to note that General McChrystal apparently would prefer 60,000 to 80,000 more troops, not the 40,000 that have been widely discussed. These additional troops, McChrystal believes, would minimize the risk of mission failure. However, Obama reportedly will send McChrystal only 34,000 additional soldiers and marines.

It is unclear why the president would send his own handpicked general, Stanley A. McChrystal, fewer troops than McChrystal thinks are necessary to optimize the likelihood of victory.

It is also troubling to hear that, according to the Washington Post, the president is intent “on discouraging future troop requests if the security situation [in Afghanistan] deteriorates.” Again, thank goodness President Bush didn’t “discourage future troop requests” when the situation in Iraq deteriorated. Bush, in fact, did quite the opposite: He doubled down with the surge of U.S. forces.

Still, at this late date, the precise number of troops sent to Afghanistan is less important than the president’s commitment to victory and his willingness to support General McChrystal’s overall counterinsurgency strategy.

Indeed, the important thing is to send our troops much-needed reinforcements now, without further delay: Because, as Max Boot has observed, even 30,000 additional troops will enable McChrystal “to implement a good deal of his counterinsurgency strategy, albeit with more risk than should be necessary for the troops involved.”

As a senator and as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama famously said, “Words matter.” Indeed, they do, especially in counterinsurgency warfare. Unfortunately, in recent months, the president’s words about Afghanistan have been dispiriting and demoralizing to both U.S. troops and the Afghan people. That’s why his words will be closely watched and heeded when, next week, he announces his new plans for Afghanistan. We can only hope that our president rises to the challenge that history has thrust upon him.

Recent Posts by John Guardiano

55 Comments so far ↓

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    John Guardiano wrote: “Cheney got the word “dither” from me! I was, I believe, the first one to employ the term — on September 22 for a piece that I wrote for this site, FrumForum or New Majority. “Don’t Dither: Send More Troops to Afghanistan Now” I wrote.”

    You should have introduced him to the word before he hastily and foolishly rushed the country into Iraq. Nevertheless, you are to be applauded for publicly confessing your stupidity.

  • ottovbvs

    ……This is absurd……We’ve been in Afghanistan for eight years……eight years……. that’s twice as long as we were participating in the greatest war in history……for seven years and one month George Bush was president and from most of the time we had around 30,000 troops there……Obama has been president for 11 months and he’s increased troop levels to around 68,000…..the request for a further increase arrived about 10 weeks ago so at worst he’d “dithered” for ten weeks versus seven years and one month…..and according to Guardiano this is making “losing” in Afghanistan more likely……..the reality is we lost in Afghanistan years ago when we decided to squander whatever small chance we had of semi normalizing this country……personally I don’t even buy that but for those who believe this was ever possible I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt…….we have a huge mess on our hands that using General Petraeus’ own metrics is going to require over 600,000 troops occupying the country for a decade at least to fix……..the cost is going to run into the trillions……..btw 600,000 means double that with rotations…… Guardiano claims to have been in the marines…… well they don’t seem to have taught him much about tactics or strategy if he thinks taking a few weeks to decide on an appropriate strategy is going to make much difference to which few hills or mud villages we control while we try to prop up a corrupt govt that hadn’t technically been elected until about two weeks ago

  • cpanza

    This quote from Guardino is asinine:

    “And thank goodness President Truman didn’t define victory down in Germany and Japan. Consequently, American troops have been stationed there, in both countries, for more than half-a-century. American forces, likewise, have been stationed in Kosovo ever since President Clinton sent them there in 1999. The U.S. military is a force for good in the world, and our forward-presence abroad is typically a helpful and stabilizing influence. Why, then, preclude the option of keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan for another eight years or more? Why communicate a desire to quickly leave that country? All this does is signal weakness and irresolution in the wake of a determined and implacable foe who might now be inclined to try and wait us out.”

    He’s comparing our stay in Afghanistan to being stationed in Japan or Germany post-WWII? Or Kosovo post-conflict? There’s a difference between continually fighting battles and engaging hostile forces — which is what we’re doing in Afghanistan — and having a contingent of forces present after the fighting is over to keep the peace. Maybe you’ve forgotten what “post-” means.

  • Carney

    Iraq was not a “distraction” and did not hinder victory in Afghanistan. This country can walk and chew gum at the same time. We fought Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan all at once. In fact, we launched D-Day on the same day as the first-ever large scale bombing raid of the Japanese mainland, and one day after the liberation of Rome. We had 500,000 troops in Vietnam while being fully manned and ready to repel a full-scale North Korean invasion of the South, and of a full-scale Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.

    All the crocodile tears of the Left about the supposedly forsaken opportunity for victory in Afghanistan are now revealed for what they were – a mere ruse giving us an excuse to choose to lose in Iraq, to be followed by choosing to lose in Afghanistan. Our enemies could not hope for better friends.

  • Anonymous

    [...] this is patently untrue. Why, there was a long and protracted debate in 2009 when Gen. McChrystal took over and requested more troops. And this debate continued [...]