In the Arena

The Afghan Strategy Review

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A rather strange column today by Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post: the Europeans are concerned by Barack Obama’s “indecision” on Afghanistan:

They know that if the deployment goes forward, they will be asked to make their own difficult and politically costly contributions of soldiers or other personnel. But they are, if anything, even more worried that the American president will choose a feckless strategy for what they consider a critical mission. And they are frustrated that they must watch and wait — and wait and wait — for the president to make up his mind.

My first reaction is: If the Europeans consider this such a critical mission, why are they being so, well, feckless about supporting it themselves? Why do the Germans have rules of engagement that tie both hands behind their backs? Why do the Italians pay the Taliban not to attack their troops? Why are the Dutch–who actually do fight–leaving? A year ago, I made a tour of various NATO outposts in Afghanistan and many of these European armies are to the U.S. military as campus cops are to actual police officers.

But the more important question is: Is the strategic review hurting or helping the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

Let’s review: Afghanistan is the lesser theater here. The real action–the real danger to U.S. national security–is in Pakistan where (a) the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 actually live and (b) you have a very shaky civilian government and a very powerful Army, riddled with Islamist elements, and an estimated 60 nuclear weapons. An explosive cocktail, to be sure. Our presence in Afghanistan achieves two purposes: it prevents the Taliban from returning to power and Al Qaeda from using the area as a safe haven and (b) it bolsters the civilian government in Pakistan, indirectly, by sending the message that the U.S. isn’t going to abandon the region as it did after the Soviets were kicked out of Afghanistan in 1989.

The Afghan theater was both ignored and mishandled by the Bush regime. Indeed, when Mullah Omar sued for peace in December, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld rejected the offer to negotiate. Instead, the U.S. government paid off a bunch of warlords to fight the Taliban–or not join the Taliban themselves–and those warlords did precious little fighting and a fair amount of poppy harvesting. After seven years of Bush incompetence, the Obama Administration decided to actually prosecute the war in Afghanistan last winter.

Four things have happened since then that made a policy review necessary: There was an obviously corrupt election in Afghanistan, further damaging the credibility of the incredibly corrupt Karzai government. The U.S. military made a mistake, deploying troops for a whack-a-mole strategy in Helmand Province rather than pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy by securing the population in Kandahar city and province. The Pakistanis became selectively serious about dealing with the Taliban threat on their side of the border. And U.S. human intelligence penetrated Al Qaeda more successfully than it had in the past.

All the above made the strategy review necessary. I’ve just finished reading an excellent book about the generals who led the Iraq war, called The Fourth Star. And it’s clear that one of the big problems with that war was that Bush-Cheney (or vice versa) didn’t have a strategy review six months into their effort. They might have benefitted from checking in with David Petraeus, who was finding Rumsfeld’s deBaathification order a major disaster up in Mosul province (Petraeus had to fire all the local teachers, for whom membership in the Baath Party was a necessity). They also might have benefitted from checking in with the Army’s intelligence officers who were blocked from working with the tribes in Anbar province because the entirely unfortunate Jerry Bremer believed that “tribes have no place in the New Democratic Iraq.” The decision to go to war in Iraq was stupid and immoral no matter the strategy, but the blood shed–the estimated 85,000 Iraqi lives lost, the tens of thousands of U.S. casualties–might have been diminished if the terminally arrogant Bush Administration had been willing to question and review its strategy on a regular basis. When Bush finally did perform a major strategy review–which lasted for months in the autumn of 2006–it finally got rid of Rumsfeld, replaced him with Robert Gates, who in turn replaced General George Casey with David Petraeus.

Which brings us back to now. Clearly, the strategic review is necessary. But I think the Obama Administration has made a significant mistake by allowing it to become so public. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and sends a difficult message to the troops downrange. The review was probably destined to become public, in any case. There are constant leaks–more likely from ┬áthe Republican side of the Congressional Armed Services Committees than from the military itself–that are intended to convey the impression of a divide between the President and his generals. The Obama White House has been very disciplined in controlling the flow of information, but a process as robust as this one was bound to found out before long. Indiscretion has not been the better part of valor in this case.

The public nature of the strategy review process has made it difficult to continue it for much longer, even though a real decision on Afghanistan should wait, as Rahm Emanuel said, until a new Afghan government is formed and other facts on the ground–like the results of the Pakistani Army’s Waziristan offensive–become clear. But there should be no doubt about the wisdom and importance of reviewing Afghan strategy regularly. “We should have reviewed Iraq regularly,” said one senior military officer. “The Afghan review may mean that we’ve learned something valuable from that experience.”

But the Obama Administration needs to figure out a way to make the next review less public.