Briefing Book

Losing the War of Exhaustion

It's not low troop levels that stand to defeat the United States in Afghanistan. It's plain old public fatigue.

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, awaits a response from the White House on his assessment of the war effort, some would suggest that doubt is growing on Capitol Hill and in towns and cities across the United States about whether America can win this fight.

This doubt is misplaced. The truth is that there are more than enough troops, civilians, money, and operational capability available between the United States, NATO forces, and our Afghan allies to defeat the Taliban and assist in rebuilding Afghan society. There is no reason to fear losing a war of attrition. The major danger in Afghanistan is losing a war of exhaustion.

Over time, the U.S. military has evolved in its conviction that the center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is protecting the local population rather than defeating the enemy forces. However, while protection of the Afghan people is necessary, it’s not sufficient, for the true center of gravity for the Afghanistan enterprise is not in Kabul or Kandahar — it’s the support of the domestic U.S. population that matters most. And, the Taliban intends to fight a war of exhaustion to defeat that support.

Unlike a war of attrition, where the objective is to defeat the enemy, the objective in a war of exhaustion is to defeat a nation’s will to fight. The British Empire was not defeated in Afghanistan by a war of attrition, nor was the Soviet Union defeated in Afghanistan through attrition. Both were defeated through exhaustion. And this is how the Taliban intends to defeat the current coalition efforts in Afghanistan — by steadily eroding our will to fight.

Just look at Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s recent Eid speech. "We fought against the British invaders for 80 years," he said. "Today we have strong determination, military training and effective weapons. Still more, we have preparedness for a long war." In Osama bin Laden’s Sept. 11 message, he repeated his claim that his fighters will wear down the coalition in Afghanistan "like we exhausted the Soviet Union for 10 years until it collapsed."

In Washington, however, the debate does not discuss exhaustion, but "stuff" — the physical capacity to prosecute the war. The debate is focused on U.S. troop levels, the right number of civilians, the various ways to employ them, the defense and foreign assistance funding required to support them, and the benchmarks and metrics to grade them. This debate on capability, while necessary, is insufficient. The "War in Washington" must be to win the support and patience of the American people. Without that, mere capabilities are sure to prove insufficient and strategic patience is sure to wane. It is not hyperbole to suggest that gaining and maintaining the will of the American people is at the heart the Afghanistan enterprise.

But after eight years of combat, Americans are already impatient and war-weary. Regardless of the reasons and choices that brought Afghanistan to its current environment, it is unlikely that Americans will demonstrate the same measure of patience without a focused effort to make the case for prolonged sacrifice.

Also, most observers agree that the situation is worse in 2009 than in the past. Americans can tolerate many things, but are quick to recognize wasted effort and sunk costs. No existential threat is seen to exist in Afghanistan; rather, one reads of governmental corruption, a resurgent Taliban, and allies unwilling to bear the same burdens. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a poor, undereducated, and sparse land with few natural endowments. A significant turnaround in the same time as experienced in Iraq is unlikely. What’s more, Afghanistan competes with a host of domestic priorities from health-care reform, to economic recovery, to cap-and-trade legislation, all of which draws on a finite pool of high-level time and attention.

Regardless of the challenges, this administration should understand that popular support for the war effort is essential. If success in Afghanistan is important, then the case must be made to the American people not only in the next few months, but also over the next few years. Success in Afghanistan will not come quickly, and a skeptical America must be persuaded to give the strategy the time it needs and the resources it requires.

Many in Washington get it. "An integrated strategy has yet to be unveiled," Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar noted last week. "And none has been described … with the force and conviction necessary to persuade the American people to endorse what will likely be a much longer, albeit necessary, commitment to achieve stability in the region."

So where does the responsibility lie? While some suggest that General McChrystal take on the job of speaking to the American people, this is not McChrystal’s mission alone. There are three layers between him and the American people: his boss Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and ultimately President Barack Obama himself. Secretary Gates has been forward-leaning on this issue already, but when it comes to rallying the country behind a cause, the commander in Afghanistan, the head of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, and the secretary of defense in Washington are important, but not the central voice in that discussion. The only voice in the chain of command elected by the people of the United States is President Obama, and he bears the responsibility to make the case to the American people.

If this war is to be won, it will certainly require more capability: more troops, more civilians, more funding, and a coherent strategy. For that, we can depend on the Department of Defense to find the troops, on the Department of State and other cabinet agencies to find the civilians, and on Congress to find the money.

But capability is insufficient. Achieving success in Afghanistan will also require domestic will, popular support, and strategic patience. These are the most important weapons in a war of exhaustion. Congress, DOD, and State can help out, but only the president can achieve a popular mandate for Afghanistan. Only the president can ask Americans to endure years of sacrifice. Only the president can build support for a protracted struggle that, in his words, is a "war of necessity." And, only the president can harness domestic will, popular support, and strategic patience — the indispensable elements for success — without which our efforts in Afghanistan cannot succeed.

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