The president finally leads the war effort

The president finally leads the war effort

It’s been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Qurans provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money.

Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits.  It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can’t want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort.

The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us.

There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy.  Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won’t be good enough — the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.

Moreover, it is difficult to see how coalition forces can continue to pressure terrorists inside Pakistan if we write off Afghanistan. From where would we collect intelligence and base the forces and weapons we use in counter-terrorist strikes? How would we convincingly portray ourselves as different from what we are fighting? This war is ultimately won by delegitimizing our enemies, and that requires persuading the broader society that we can and will protect them, can and will help them improve the governance of their society — not just forcing compliance. 

Counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and costly. It requires an extraordinary level of discipline and discriminating intelligence all the way down the line, even of the most junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Even when we prove good at it, as we did in Iraq and are in Afghanistan, progress is slow and setbacks are numerous. We make this difficult task much more difficult by too little civilian power (why is the military running the anti-corruption task force?) and imposition of politically-expedient deadlines unconnected to achievement of our objectives. But alternative strategies are also deeply problematic, with costs and vulnerabilities often underestimated.

The corruption and unreliability of President Karzai is another significant impediment to achieving our goals in Afghanistan. But agreeing to his proposal for an end to Coalition military operations would actually hand him the country. It is instructive that other Afghan leaders object strongly to the proposal; they see the progress we are making. What is working in Afghanistan is the patient construction of capable local and regional governance by Coalition forces and Afghans working together. That is a threat to Karzai’s power; it is also a threat to the Taliban, which is why they embarked on a campaign of assassinating Afghan officials and seek to sow distrust between the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces.

Which is why sticking with our strategy for Afghanistan through 2014 is so important. The 2014 elections in Afghanistan have the potential to institutionalize power in a country that has known little constraint, usher forth a new generation of Afghan leaders and coincide with Afghan security forces coming on line in numbers and proficiency to take over the work we are now doing. If we walk away before then — or settle for just securing polling places rather than affecting the political ecosystem by our involvement — we should expect Afghanistan to return to worse than how we found it in 2001. Our enemies will be emboldened, our friends will be punished, and our credibility will be deeply suspect.

Part of the reason the American public is inclined to question the war effort is that the president has put so little effort into defending it. But when given the opportunity to walk away from it, President Obama made clear this week that he intends to continue taking the fight to the Taliban, training Afghan National Security Forces so they can do the work Coalition forces are now doing, handing over those operations to Afghans with us in a supporting role to stabilize the transition, and remaining in some numbers in Afghanistan even after 2014. In recommitting himself to the agreed NATO strategy and its timeline, the president is finally leading the war effort.

President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks.