Get Nasty or Go Home
The go-light strategy in Afghanistan is a joke. If Obama's serious about victory, it's time to start making unpleasant choices.
One has to admire the ingenuity of the policymakers, journalists, and generals who are desperately seeking to avoid hard decisions on what to do about America’s lost war in Afghanistan. Last spring, the Barack Obama administration, Republican leaders, and senior U.S. generals signed on to the fairy-tale prescription spun by David Kilcullen in his book The Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen argued that only limited numbers of Afghans were dedicated insurgents and that the great bulk of the United States’ enemies in Afghanistan were either hired by the Taliban or intimidated by Takfiri Islamists. Based on this comprehensive surmise — for which there is scant evidence — this April’s strategy was to "protect" Afghans from bad guys and give jobs to those waging war for wages. Having attained these goals, the strategy held, cleaning up the unpopular Takfiris would be — like Iraq — a cakewalk.
Guess what? No cakewalk. Now, Americans are watching a shellshocked Obama administration trying to decide what to do about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s urgent request for 40,000-45,000 additional U.S. troops. The general’s request, of course, is an emergency SOS indicating that the U.S.-NATO coalition is close to losing the Afghan war; a four-star U.S. general does not ask for a near doubling of his force to smooth out minor problems.
Thus, not only did the April strategy utterly fail, but the Taliban-led insurgency’s trend line is steadily climbing upward, an ascent that began in 2007 and would not be possible without widespread and increasing popular support. Rather than popular support for the Taliban being based on intimidation and money, what we are seeing in Afghanistan is popular opinion catching up with Islamist determination. Until roughly late 2006, the war against the U.S.-NATO coalition was largely fought by the Taliban, other Islamists groups like that led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and al Qaeda. Since then, however, the Islamists have been joined by Afghans who simply do not want Muslim Afghanistan occupied by all sorts of infidels from all sorts of Christian and polytheist countries. In short, an Islamist insurgency has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army. The best way to see the growth of the Afghan enemy facing the United States and NATO is to track the proliferating number of insurgent attacks in the heretofore quiet and supposedly "friendly" arc of provinces from Herat in the west clockwise to Badakhshan in the far northeast.
Team Obama faces quite a dilemma. McChrystal’s plan to stave off defeat by asking for substantial immediate reinforcements — a request that is still far short of what is needed to "win" in Afghanistan — is a sure sign that long-term intense fighting and high casualties lie ahead. The United States’ latest Nobel Prize winner now has a choice: He must act quickly on the advice of McChrystal and the U.S. intelligence community to save a marooned U.S. Army, or dither behind the harebrained split-al-Qaeda-from-the-Taliban strategizing and let more overmatched U.S. soldiers and Marines die amid the ego-building praise of effete Americans, pacifist NGOs, and the Nobelistas.
For now, dithering seems to be on tap. Last week unnamed administration officials and some commentators began floating a new "strategy" based on the formulation that: (a) the Taliban and al Qaeda are separable; (b) the Taliban does not pose a direct threat to the United States; and, therefore, (c) U.S. forces should fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Well, simply put, this strategy makes Kilcullen look like Clausewitz and surely could not have been vetted by the U.S. intelligence community. On point "a," it is no news at all that the Taliban and al Qaeda are separate entities; they always have been and will be. What is important is that they are working in tandem toward the same clear and simple primary goal — to drive out the United States and NATO, destroy Karzai’s corrupt and incompetent regime, and re-establish their Islamist emirate. In working toward this goal, al Qaeda’s combat role in Afghanistan has decreased as mujahideen forces — Afghans, Iraq veterans, and other foreign volunteers — have grown and become better armed, trained, and funded. This should have been apparent to U.S. officials several years ago when Osama bin Laden named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid as al Qaeda’s Afghan commander. Yazid’s long-practiced fortes are logistics and finance, and he is now running the main components of al Qaeda’s changed but still essential Afghan effort: logistics and training, intelligence collection, and media operations. (Nota bene: This is nowhere near a full commitment of al Qaeda’s resources, and its remaining assets are assisting other insurgencies — such as in Somalia, Algeria, and Yemen — and preparing coming attacks in the United States and Europe.)
On point "b," one has to wonder what can be meant by arguing that the Taliban does not pose a "direct threat" to the United States. Did the drafters of the new strategy bother to ask the intelligence community whom the United States is fighting in Afghanistan? The Taliban and its allies are unquestionably a direct threat to deployed U.S. military forces — ask the commander of the U.S. post at Kamdesh, Nuristan, mauled on Oct. 4 — and they intend to prevent everything Washington cites as a goal in Afghanistan: democracy, secularism, the rule of (Western) law, elections, constitutions, central government institutions, women’s rights, coeducational schools, and the annihilation of al Qaeda. By protecting al Qaeda, incidentally, Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s outfit is also facilitating a "direct threat" to the continental United States.
It is time to face the facts. The Taliban and its allies have waged an eight-year insurgency against the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government that is growing in geographical reach, battlefield success, and popularity in the Muslim world. As long as U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, this reality will remain the same. The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.
Point "c" is another mystifier and one that the intelligence community was forced to unsuccessfully pursue by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. One must assume Obama and his advisors will not abjectly surrender in Afghanistan, at least not before the 2010 midterm elections. Based on this assumption, the idea of focusing U.S. forces on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan raises the question of who will fight the still raging Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan while the United States shoots in the dark at al Qaeda targets it cannot locate? The Brits and the Canadians? Massively reinforced NATO contingents? The Afghan National Army and police? India? Not bloody likely. Unless the United States is going to do its al Qaeda hunting Clinton-style from U.S. Navy carriers and submarines and/or Saudi, Iraqi, and Kuwaiti bases — and thereby be even less successful than it is now — U.S. forces are unavoidably going to do the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan while simultaneously hunting al Qaeda.
For the sake of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, let us hope this new strategic formulation is quickly dropped and forgotten and that Washington’s focus is refixed on the hard but simple Afghan choice it faces: Because the U.S.-NATO occupation powers the Afghan insurgency and international Muslim support for it, we must either destroy it root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat. Afterward, only the all-out use of large, conventional U.S. military forces can be expected to have a shot at winning in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the United States has definitively proven that clandestine operations, covert action, Special Forces actions, and aerial drone attacks cannot defeat al Qaeda. It has likewise proven beyond doubt that nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.
That said, military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines (even if Princess Diana spins in her grave), and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option. We do not have enough troops, and U.S. political leaders, many U.S. generals, and the anti-American academy and media do not think "military victory" is an appropriate or moral goal; their mantra is: "Better dead Americans at home and abroad than criticism from Europe, the media, and the academy."
Overall, then, we are well along the road to self-imposed defeat in Afghanistan, and about the best we can do is give McChrystal the troops he needs to slow defeat. After doing that, we can figure out how to get out of Afghanistan in an orderly manner, while preparing to absorb more al Qaeda attacks in North America.