FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Afghanistan: Obama's no-win rhetoric
, November 28, 2009
Three months ago, the US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, wrote a 66-page report on the current political and military situation in the country, and what needed to be done to win the eight-year war. He highlighted the political and military weakness of the Afghan Government, and said that only a major increase in US and allied forces could defeat the Taliban insurgency.
Despite numerous meetings involving the US Defense Department and the President's national security advisers, at the time of writing, President Obama had still not decided whether to accept General McChrystal's request for an additional 40,000 troops (on top of the 68,000 Americans already there), or to reject it.
It is clear that Obama is caught between his pre-election rhetoric - that America should cut back its forces in Iraq and increase those in Afghanistan - and the increasing unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, where allied casualties are rising and the Taliban insurgency is seemingly capable of murderous bombings throughout the country.
Obama is well aware of how the Vietnam war destroyed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and how effectively he was able to mobilise public discontent with George W. Bush's war in Iraq to defeat John McCain just a year ago.
The war weariness with Iraq, evident in 2008, has now been followed by a collapse in public support for the military intervention in Afghanistan, as the war drags on with no resolution in sight.
With America still in the depth of recession, due to the global financial crisis, and the US Government facing a massive deficit as a result of the bail-out of the American banking system, an increasing number of Americans oppose the massive expenditure needed to increase the US military effort in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, President Obama does not want to go down in history as the man who presided over America's military defeat, the first since Vietnam, at the hands of Islamic fanatics who want to take their country back 1,000 years.
General McChrystal's 66-page report on Afghanistan was a sober assessment of where the current military strategy has failed.
He summarised the current position in the following terms: "The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating."
General McCrystal added: "We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans - in both their government and the international community - that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.
"Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down' on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate.
"NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) requires a new strategy that is credible to, and sustainable by, the Afghans. This new strategy must also be properly resourced and executed through an integrated civilian-military counter-insurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment.
"To execute the strategy, we must grow and improve the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and elevate the importance of governance. We must also prioritise resources to those areas where the population is threatened, gain the initiative from the insurgency, and signal unwavering commitment to see it through to success. Finally, we must redefine the nature of the fight, clearly understand the impacts and importance of time, and change our operational culture."
He concluded: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) - while Afghan security capacity matures - risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
A month after receiving the report, however, President Obama indicated he was unconvinced. He told an interviewer on CNN, "Right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy? When we have clarity on that, then the question is, how do we resource it?"
Later, he told CBS's Face the Nation
, "Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we'll figure out how to resource it. We're not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we're automatically going to make Americans safe." (New York Times
, September 21, 2009).
The military stalemate in Afghanistan has been followed by political paralysis in America. The result of both will be a massive loss of American prestige around the world.