The following was first published in The National on October 13, 2009.
Much has been made of the current popularity of a certain book in the Obama White House. Lessons in Disaster blames the American defeat in Vietnam on a failure to establish clear goals for its involvement there, and it appears to be having a marked effect on thinking on Capitol Hill. In particular, the chapter entitled “Never deploy military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends” appears to have frozen a hitherto decisive strategic discussion on the war in Afghanistan.
Divining the influence of the book has captivated the US press, and at least at one press conference the White House has been asked about it. Members of both the current and previous US administrations have been at pains to distinguish the war in Afghanistan from the disaster of Vietnam, with some justification. But one comparison, at least on the US side, is apt: the whys of the war have a habit of being drowned out by the hows as the fighting drags on and victory grows ever more elusive.
But the shift from why to how is also natural, and not necessarily a bad one. In many ways, too much attention on the purpose of the war now threatens defeat. The US invaded Afghanistan to overthrow al Qa’eda in response to the September 11 attacks. The Taliban were only important insofar as they stood in the way of capturing Osama bin Laden. With the architects of the most horrific act of terrorism on US soil in hiding, America became complacent. Neglect of post-war reconstruction efforts and the failure to develop an effective Afghan government allowed the Taliban to regroup and re-insinuate itself into the country. In the eight years since, the Taliban have become the main adversary while al Qa’eda and bin Laden have faded into the background.
Enter General Stanley McChrystal, whose suggestions on a new strategy to reverse the negative trends in Afghanistan are currently under discussion by the Obama administration. The new commander of the US and coalition forces has advised focusing on protecting the population and increasing troop levels, both to accomplish the first goal and speed up the training of Afghan forces. Much like the feted “troop surge” in Iraq, the aim is to employ the principles of counterinsurgency to create a period of relative security which boosts the authority of the central government over the population.
Mr Obama is less receptive to such suggestions than he might once have been. Not only are the lessons of the US military’s last major defeat being digested, but the controversial outcome of the recent Afghan presidential elections has cast doubt on the appropriateness of Gen McChrystal’s advice.
The Afghan government has been a persistent impediment to progress. The controversy surrounding the re-election of Hamid Karzai has only posed an even greater barrier to securing the country and overcoming the Taliban. Whereas once it was only corrupt and ineffective, its basic legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans is now in question.
Even counterinsurgency’s most ardent advocates admit that military efforts in Afghanistan depend on events in Kabul. The support of the population is crucial. Unless the US, its allies and Karzai’s government become better than the Taliban at earning the trust of the Afghans, any victory will be temporary. And as coalition forces are seen, at best, as guests in the country, the Afghan government has a central role to play in any counterinsurgency plan.
Unfortunately, despite the legitimate medium and long-term concerns the White House has about Gen McChrystal’s new plan, there are few good alternatives. A group led by the vice president, Joe Biden, is advocating another course of action: reduce forces and focus efforts on killing senior al Qa’eda and Taliban leaders. With the success of unmanned drone aircraft assassinations of top targets in remote locations, it is easy to see why this might be a tempting alternative to putting additional American lives in danger. But it would also be a mistake. To do so would let the initial reasons for invading Afghanistan shape the strategy for a war that is no longer about killing members of al Qa’eda. Gen McChrystal’s advice is troubled by concerns about the long-term effectiveness of counterinsurgency, but Mr Biden’s plan promises only short-term gains. If organisations like the Taliban and al Qa’eda have demonstrated anything, it is that their existence does not depend on one man or any group of men.
The choice facing Mr Obama is not easy, but all signs point to his embracing Gen McChrystal’s suggestions – he did, after all, hire the man for his specific expertise on counterinsurgency. But the detractors have made their voices heard and the whys will have to be answered before the US renews its commitment to Afghanistan.
The worry is that every time Mr Obama has justified the war, he has framed it as if September 11 happened yesterday and al Qa’eda presented a clear and present danger to America’s national security. It doesn’t, and continuing to paint it as such has poisoned an urgent debate on the most effective manner to win in Afghanistan. After eight years, the war has only made the world less safe by destabilising both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the US has a duty to undo what it has done.
In any war, and especially in wars fought by democracies, why you fight is exceedingly important. Mr Obama is concerned that accepting Gen McChrystal’s call for more troops would be his Gulf of Tonkin resolution. And just like Lyndon Johnson, Mr Obama would be forced to stand before the American people and lie, saying he would not commit “American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land”.
He would do well to recall another quote by John Paul Vann, a leading figure in the Vietnam War: “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle – you know who you’re killing.”
The US faces defeat if it retreats to the air against an enemy that must be fought with knives and rifles. And even if knives and rifles do not guarantee victory, America owes it to the Afghan people, and the world, to try.