Sunday, December 6, 2009


During the presidential campaign last year, Candidate Obama said he would focus attention and resources on the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. President Obama has certainly delivered on that. After months of deliberation and study, in a major speech last week he presented his plan:

  1. Send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan within six months, this is above and beyond the 20,000 he already sent. That triples the troop levels from the day he took office. In addition, NATO has pledged an additional 7,000 troops.
  2. Redouble the civilian effort, which is key to winning counter insurgencies; with a thinly veiled threat to work with local governments and leaders if the central government doesn't shape up. The central government, lead by Hamid Karzai, recent winner of a fraudulent election, is rife with corruption and incompetence. This is a major problem as the primary objective of counter insurgency warfare is to legitimize the government in the eyes of the people.
  3. Work with Pakistan to stabilize that country and squeeze the Taliban and al Qaeda from both sides of the border. The Taliban came within a hundred kilometers of the Pakistan capital earlier this year, but the Pakistani army has pushed them back since. While the Pakistani army and intelligence service created the Taliban and supported them, there has been a falling out recently. The Taliban has bombed a number of army and intelligence facilities, including a recent attack that killed military officers and their children in a mosque. Similarly, while Pakistani public opinion has long opposed supporting the U.S. in the region, a spate of bombing has caused public opinion to shift significantly in our favor. It is critical to continue this trend.
  4. Begin withdrawing U.S. troops in 18 months. What many have not noticed is that he said begin withdrawing U.S. troops, not remove all of them. There is no timeline to do more than begin to withdraw.

Obama had, basically, three options to choose from:

  1. Withdraw more-or-less immediately. We tried that in 1989 after the Soviets were defeated. It led to the conquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban, who harbored al Qaeda, who attacked America on 9/11 leveling the World Trade Center, severely damaging the Pentagon, and killing 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil. It is little wonder he did not take this path. It's been tried, and it failed.
  2. Continue on with minimal resources (troops and money). This was the policy of the Bush administration, which lead to a resurgence of the Taliban and a real threat to the Pakistani nuclear stockpile. Again, it's easy to see why this approach was not taken. It didn't work.
  3. Treat Afghanistan/Pakistan as the critical point. Basic Warfare 101 says that to win one should apply "overwhelming force at the critical point." In counter-insurgency warfare firepower is not decisive, so overwhelming force requires more than just the military. For example, it should be noted that Afghanistan has been at war almost continuously for 30 years. Most of the military age men have fought much or all of their lives. Many fight for whomever currently offers them the best chance to survive and provide for their family. Simply paying Afghani government soldiers more than their Taliban counterparts would probably do more than any number of American soldiers, at far less cost. That this wasn't done long ago is a disgrace to the American war effort.

Clearly, Obama has taken the last option -- treat Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan as the critical point in the struggle with al Qaeda.

The obvious question to ask is: "if the Soviets couldn't pacify Afghanistan from right next door, why do we think we can do so from half a world away?" This is particularly important as the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan was a major contribution to the total collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later. Note the recent near-collapse of the American financial system and the massive increase in debt that could easily, if not reversed, send us off a cliff. Fortunately, there are some important differences between the Soviet and American efforts:

  1. The Soviets did not apply classic counter insurgency principles, but parts of the American military applied them successfully in Iraq (see here for a discussion of the U.S. military's approach to counter insurgency warfare). In particular, the Afghan commander (McChrystal) and his boss, the CentCom commander (Patreaus) are major proponents of this approach, which works. The appalling fact is that, despite bringing Iraq back from the brink over the last couple of years using these classic techniques, they have not been applied in Afghanistan until now. One can only wonder why.
  2. The Soviets almost certainly intended to permanently occupy Afghanistan, which was not popular, to put it very mildly, with the locals. President Obama made it crystal clear that America has absolutely no intention of keeping US forces in Afghanistan over the long term. It is crucial that this message be successfully communicated to the Afghan people. One seldom-discussed reason we avoided disaster in Iraq is that the Democrats won the 2006 Congressional elections on an anti-Iraq war platform. I'm fairly confident Iraqi insurgent leaders looked at those results, realized the Americans would be leaving, and chose not to get chewed up by American firepower trying to get us to do what we would now do anyway: leave. The Sunni insurgents made an alliance with us and the Mahdi Army stood down almost completely. Violence in Iraq has plummeted.
  3. The Soviets faced an insurgency supported by a billion-dollar-a-year supply network funneling weapons and materials through Pakistan. This network, set up by a collaboration between the Reagan administration, Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (see "Charlie Wilson's War" on DVD or read the book), and the Saudis was a key element in the Red Army's defeat, particularly the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles which ended Soviet air power freedom of action at low altitude. While the Taliban and al Qaeda have bases in Pakistan, this support is a tiny fraction of what the anti-Soviet forces received and it is under attack from American drones and Pakistani forces.

This does not mean America will succeed in Afghanistan. It does mean we have a fighting chance. Obama is very smart, he understands Islam and that part of the world far better than any previous president, he just might succeed. He has asked for 18 months to show that he can pull it off. We should give it to him.

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