walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Needs To Change

It has not been a good month for America in Afghanistan. Three weeks after U.S. soldiers sparked nationwide riots by burning copies of the Koran, a lone American opened fire on civilians inside their own homes, killing at least 16 villagers, many of whom were children.

President Obama entered office pledging to end the war in Afghanistan. Last year, he publicly declared that U.S. soldiers would hand over control of security operations to local forces by 2014. However, as the deadline approaches, the country is not settling down, and attempts to negotiate with the Taliban are proving troublesome.

Via Meadia cautions readers not to get too alarmed by these recent headlines; Americans overreacted to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, converting a tactical victory into a strategic defeat. Every war brings its harvests of good and bad news, and you have to keep your head in both the good times and the bad.

That said, while we aren’t on the brink of some irretrievable disaster, it seems increasingly clear that President Obama’s Afghanistan policy needs a rethink. The violence has badly damaged attempts to build trust with the local population, and the Afghan government is looking less attractive by the day.

Not all the news from Afghanistan is bad. As Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon point out in Foreign Policy, there are some real though tentative improvements that need to be taken into account. The wisest course, which the administration unfortunately is unlikely to take, would be to hunker down, dampen the talk of withdrawal to give our opponents more incentive to negotiate, and think hard about exactly what are the remaining minimum objectives we need in order to safely withdraw.

The president had likely hoped the war wouldn’t be a factor in the 2012 election campaign, but one of the consequences of the failure of his chosen strategy is that it is back on the agenda and in a very ugly way.  It may seem politically expedient to say and do as little as possible at this point while continuing to move toward withdrawal regardless of the situation on the ground, but the President will serve himself and the country best if, after reviewing where we stand and what we need to do, he explains where we stand in this war to an increasingly worried and skeptical public.

That is not the conversation President Obama wanted to have with the American people in an election year, but events on the ground now demand it.

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  • http://inthisdimension.com alex scipio

    It is not just Obama who needs a re-think on war strategy. AMERICA needs a re-think.

    When we go to war to win, when we WAGE WAR, we win. Unfortunately only the Civil War and WW2 count in that column. In every other war we’ve fought one side or the other tired of it and went home, from the Revolution, when Briatin did, to Vietnam when we did.. to Afghanistan where we are about to.

    When we pretend that showing off our toys, whether it’s “shock and awe” or pretending that the battlefield is an episode of “Future Weapons” and the enemy will be dissuaded by our cool toys – when we have been busily proving around the globe since 1953 that we lack the will necessary to win – then all we do is waste lives (on both sides) and treasure, as well as the future citizens who will never be born to the fallen.

    Toys don’t win wars; the will to win wins wars.

    Whether this is a general failing of Western Liberal Democracy or of the Left is unknown to me. I would point-out that Liberals do NOT believe in consequences for actions (they pass a zillion gun laws but will NOT imprison people or execute them as consequences for bad behavior with guns, for example), and they DO believe that all people will just do what they are told. Both modes – neither consequences nor a rational understanding of self-motivated human beings with free will – are hallmarks of the Left – and counterproductive (to say the least) in war.

    Arguably the best book to come out of Vietnam was “Gardens of Stone,” about burying kids in Arlington and training new kids for deployment to battle. In it the grizzled NCO veteran is having drinks with a newbie eager to go to war. The newbie comments, incredulously, that the VC are attacking Hueys with bows & arrows, asking,”How can we lose to arrows?”

    The NCO looks at him a long moment and then asks, “How can you BEAT people willing to attack helicopters with arrows?”

    Too bad the Pentagon and our presidents never took that lesson to-heart. If we lack the will to win, we should not EVER go to war. If we go to war, we should wage total destruction on the enemy; anything less is not worth the cost. History also proves that if you DESTROY the enemy they become political, economic and military allies for generations. If you do NOT destroy them, they do not.

    If the enemy is not enough of an enemy to destroy, he’s not worth fighting, period.

  • vanderleun

    Strategy? The total Obama Strategy could be summed up if he simply addressed the nation for about ten seconds and said, “Hey, I’m losing as fast as I can, okay?”

  • Brett

    I’d be careful about citing Michael O’Hanlon. He’s usually been one of the “things are improving if we only give it six months” journalists on Afghanistan, relaying the various talking points that would come out of the US effort there.

  • Kris

    alex@1: Amen.

  • La Marque

    Afghanistan is a fractured, sectarian, tribal backwater. They neither want democracy nor do they have the conditions needed for democracy. Every democracy needs an educated middle class and a respect for freedom of speech. Afghanistan has neither. The President doesn’t understand that; it is time to leave the Afghans in charge with some support (no active NATO troops in the field). If they fail, it is because they won’t fight for their own freedoms.

  • Corlyss

    “Obama’s Afghan Strategy Needs To Change”
    Strategy? What strategy? You mean the one where he cuts and runs as fast as he can while still proclaiming that Afghanistan is the “good” war? That strategy? Post Vietnam Democrats wouldn’t know war stragey if it jumped up and bit ‘em in [behind].

    @Alex #1

    Check out Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. That how we fight wars now – just enough to get brave young American warriors killed, but no enough to actually win anything, even American public opinion. As long as we allow people who don’t fight wars anymore to set the rules on how wars are to be fought, America will never win another war.

  • Mrs. Davis

    @Alex, Add the American Revolution and the English Civil War to your list. The Cousins’ Wars goes into their motivation in some detail. There is a reason why we don’t fight wars like that often and we should be thankful for it. But the Muslims should note that we are due for one.

  • Mark Michael

    The things that give me pause about walking away from Afghanistan is that business about 9/11 and Al Qaeda using it as its training ground for those 19 hijackers, and then that since 9/11 Pakistan has been the country that has harbored jihadi that plotted and launched attacks on Great Britain (their subway, that airline plot in Aug 2006), the Madrid subway bombing. Lots of Pakistanis live in GB and travel back and forth between the two countries. It’s hard for GB to keep jihadi from using that well-traveled path.

    It seems to me that we need some military and intelligence forces on the ground “in the neighborhood” to keep an eye on things. If it’s just a handful and they just sit on a secure base, they quickly lose contact with what’s going on out in the hinterlands.

    The furious reaction in Pakistan after our Special Forces killed OBL last year reminded us all very vividly how anti-West, anti-American a significant fraction of the Pakistani elite and general population are. He was “hiding out” under the very noses of the Pakistani military, recall.

    Some situations do not lend themselves to clean solutions. WRM’s idea of hunkering down and waiting it out may be the least awful “solution.” I would point out that the cost in treasure and lives for a nation of 310 million and 14.5 trillion GDP, once we scale back the military some, is not that large: about 0.6% of our annual GDP and about 1.5% of the people killed in highway accidents each year (32,000 last year vs. 500 killed in Afghanistan).

    Positive things are that India has slowly moved towards the West and America since the Cold War ended two decades ago. They have experienced terrorist attacks regularly and have common interests. They can be good allies. There’s also the issue of having American forces on both sides of Iran – Afghanistan and the Gulf States in the Middle East – until their hostile regime is replaced somehow.

  • Kris

    Alex@1, Mrs Davis@7: It would be remiss not to mention Victor Davis Hanson’s “Western Way of War”.

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