Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'm With the President on This One

The President wants to identify our strategy in Afghanistan before he decides on more troops:

President Barack Obama says he hasn't asked his top commander in Afghanistan to sit on an expected request for U.S. reinforcements in a backsliding war, but he gave no deadline for making a decision about whether to send more Americans into harm's way.

Obama said in a series of television interviews broadcast Sunday that he will not allow politics to govern his decision. He left little doubt he is re-evaluating whether the renewed focus on hunting al-Qaida that he announced just months ago has become blurred and whether more forces will do any good.

"The first question is, `Are we doing the right thing?'" Obama said. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?"

Actually, the first question is 'What is our objective?' The second question is what is our strategy to achieve that objective. The third question is how many troops do we need to carry out that strategy. But he's pretty green, so cut him some slack.

But essentially, I've asked repeatedly what is our objective before we ask about the next questions. If our military thinks it needs more troops, I'm ready to back them to win.

Still, the president is right. What do we want more troops to do?

UPDATE: Leaks of McChrystal's report are out. Said the general:

While asserting that more troops are needed, McChrystal also pointed out an "urgent need" to significantly revise strategy. The U.S. needs to interact better with the Afghan people, McChrystal said, and better organize its efforts with NATO allies.

"We run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves," he wrote.

Yes, we need to know what our strategy is--and what our objective is. Otherwise, adding more troops just means the troops will act in default mode--seeking out combat that could be counter-productive. After all, I've worried about the effects of our tightened rules of engagement on tactical situations while accepting that for strategic effect, such a restriction is a good thing.

The debate over strategy, in part, is really a debate over our objective. Which raises the issue of how distracted were we by Iraq? If ten months after President Obama was elected he still doesn't know what we should be trying to achieve in Afghanistan (in the sense of what we want our troops to do), how can we possibly say that Iraq distracted us?

The fact is, from 2002 through 2005, with no Taliban sanctuary of note in Pakistan, we were fine with having our Afghanistan objective being denying the country as a sanctuary for al Qaeda. With but a single combat brigade, we achieved our objective just fine.

Only in 2006 and 2007 did the enemy really ramp up with cannon fodder recruited in Pakistan--and even then we smashed up the enemy efforts to storm into Afghanistan.

And since the success of the Iraq surge in 2007, al Qaeda has refocused on Afghanistan, which we can see with the increased use of IEDs based on al Qaeda technical advice.

The point is, it wasn't so much that we slighted Afghanistan in order to fight in Iraq (where al Qaeda chose to make their stand, I should add), but that we didn't need much to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan. Doing more from 2002 to 2005 would have meant going into Pakistan to find wherever bin Laden is hiding (or is buried).

Now, because we defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, we find our old enemy focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan and we have followed them there. It is taking us longer than al Qaeda to shift focus because we had to nail down success in Iraq--where we faced enemies other than al Qaeda--before shifting troops and assets to Afghanistan.

Of course, as we shift forces to this new main effort, we still have to answer the questions what do we want to achieve; what do we want our troops to do to achieve this (along with non-military means, of course), and how many troops and civilian assets do we need to achieve that?

Iraq wasn't a distraction from fighting al Qaeda. Iraq was the main front for a while. And even now, as we make Afghanistan our main front again, al Qaeda isn't inside Afghanistan in significant strength. Unless you want to argue that Afghanistan distracts us from fighting in Pakistan, stop talking about meaningless distractions.

Such talk is a distraction from what we need to talk about.

UPDATE: Lowry doesn't understand how the president can say we are experiencing "mission creep" and fail to appreciate that we are pursuing a counter-insurgency strategy.

The president has it right, if you understand that he really isn't talking about finding the right "strategy." Yes, counterinsurgency is the military strategy we seek to carry out. But the mission creep is the issue of the objective toward which a COIN strategy seeks to advance us.

The question remains, what do we want Afghanistan to look like after a successful COIN strategy using however many troops we deem necessary to achieve the mission? Again, what is our objective?

There are many things it could be in between withdrawal or striking from a distance at one end and seeking to create a centalized modern state run out of Kabul at the other. I personally want, based on the history of the place, to stabilize Afghanistan based on provincial and local governing structures with only a nominal national government performing limited functions. This will create institutions strong enough (with some support from us) to keep terrorists from carving out a sanctuary in which they can prepare to strike us at home as they did on 9/11.

Funny enough, the president implicitly recognizes by his "mission creep" comment that we have not actually been distracted by Iraq from winning in Afghanistan--we're apparently on the verge of trying to achieve much more than our limited goals of 2002-2007.

And remember, too, that no matter how successful we are in achieving our objective in Afghanistan, if Pakistan fails to control their side of the border, our success in Afghanistan will remain incomplete.