President Barack Obama is right to insist that U.S. military leaders produce a reasonable strategy for winning what he calls the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. But judging by Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s memo describing the results of his review of the situation in Afghanistan and Obama’s comments over the weekend, it remains unclear exactly what “winning” means.
This is no small thing, because it is impossible to have a strategy when you don’t know what victory looks like.
Obama says the U.S. remains in Afghanistan eight years after 9/11 “because al-Qaida killed 3,000 Americans and we cannot allow extremists who want to do violence to the United States to be able to operate with impunity.” That means preventing the establishment of a government in Afghanistan that would give al-Qaida freedom of movement, which is what they had when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001. So, winning means defeating the Taliban and establishing a government in Afghanistan strong enough to prevent a Taliban resurgence once the U.S. withdraws its forces.
McChrystal has prepared a separate memo containing specific numbers of additional troops and other resources he believes will be required to defeat the Taliban militarily. But that memo has not been made public because the White House fears it would incite a heated fight in Congress before health care reform is wrapped up. In addition to the 17,000 added troops Obama approved earlier this year, McChrystal reportedly will request as many as 60,000 more. And, according to the unclassified version of his memo published by The Washington Post, McChrystal believes the U.S. has no more than a year in which to act before the Taliban becomes too strong to oust.
If Obama is indeed serious about winning the war in Afghanistan, he must put it on the front burner ahead of health care reform, cap-and-trade and other domestic issues. There is no justification for delaying decisions that, by Obama’s own description, are central to the federal government’s most basic duty, protecting the American people from another 9/11.
As commander-in-chief, Obama should take care to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam. The U.S. lost its way in that conflict because it chose gradual escalation over a decisive stroke, and because civilian leaders micromanaged the ground and air wars.
Obama should review the merits of McChrystal’s troop request and quickly decide how many more Americans should go to Afghanistan. He should base his decision on military realities, not politics. Then, he should get out of the way and let the generals do their business, which is fighting wars. Either do whatever is necessary to defeat the Taliban as quickly as possible, or get out.