November 30, 2009

Afghanistan: A decision long overdue

by Hal Gershowitz

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At long last, President Obama plans to make the much-awaited announcement on his Afghanistan policy decision in a prime-time televised address to the nation. Perhaps we are a “day late and a dollar short,” as they say, writing about his delay at this late stage, but his procrastination, we call it dithering, has reached the point of unintended negative consequences.

Let us recall Afghanistan is what our president, even as a candidate referred to as a “war of necessity.” It was the real war while Iraq was, to him, an unnecessary war. For a war to be waged successfully the Commander-in-Chief must lead not just the military, but also the people. Wars take sustained effort. There is a high cost in blood and treasure. There is no substitute for moral clarity. President Roosevelt sounded the clarion call after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor when this country was unprepared for war. Winston Churchill almost single-handedly rallied his nation in the dark days after the retreat at Dunkirk. In a few short days in October 1962 President Kennedy rallied the nation to the risk of confronting the Soviets regarding nuclear missiles in Cuba. Somehow President Obama has instead given the impression of engaging in a process of weighing the worth of the Afghanistan endeavor. Not exactly how we would frame a “war of necessity” and certainly not a clarion call to arms.

Perhaps, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs provided some insight into what will be included in the President’s message to the nation when he explained at last week’s press briefing that “it is important to fully examine not just how we’re going to get folks in but how we’re going to get folks out.” Well Mr. Gibbs, we get our folks out by winning; or we get our folks out by losing. Given that losing is not, we presume, an option, discussing or even alluding to an exit strategy in an address that will be followed closely by friend and foe alike throughout the world will send a terribly wrong message to our enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But, then again, sadly, Mr Gibbs’ briefing has already sent that message.

Our President was inaugurated on January 20, 2009 and inherited, as he frequently reminds us, a financial and foreign policy mess. Given his views that we were engaged in a war of necessity and that the war effort was being undermined by the Iraq war, one would have expected that any policy review would have begun right then. But it seems not to have then begun. It became secondary to the liberal wish list made famous by Rahm Emanuel’s exhortation “never waste a crisis.”

Shortly after inauguration day, the Administration rolled out its plan to remake health care in the country and since then the President has traveled the length and breadth of the country using his bully pulpit to rally support. He even took the unique step of addressing a joint session of Congress. So where was this Administration since January 20 on the vital issue of Afghanistan? How does the issue of the nation’s security fit into its priorities?

It took five months for the President to have a new commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to lead our forces. Shortly after his appointment in June the general wrote a lengthy report to Defense Secretary Gates recommending what was essentially the same surge strategy (30,000 to 40,000 more troops) that worked in Iraq if we were to be successful. This report became public in September at which time President Obama, with great fanfare, commenced a bottoms-up policy review. Every option was “on the table.” Reporters were allowed “photo-ops” showing the president and his advisors gathered around a conference table deliberating the choices before them.

The period between Gen. McChrystal’s appointment and the present became a very public display of presidential indecision. What does that tell the troops on the ground or our allies about the importance of this “war of necessity”? What does it demonstrate to our foes in this world about America’s resolve when its national security is at stake? During this period of delay there was an attack on Ft. Hood, which the Administration took great pains not to label as motivated by Islamic radicals. Also, during this period, the Attorney General announced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed would be tried in federal court in New York so the whole world could see the fairness of our system of justice. In our view, what the whole world really sees is a half hearted effort to keep our nation safe, prevent further attacks on it and punish those responsible for acts of war against it.

We need to put all of this in context and review why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, and what our stated objectives were and should still be. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in February 1989, nine years after they first invaded the country, there was an absolute power vacuum for the next five years. There was no central government worthy of the name. The Taliban (literally: “Students”) filled that vacuum between 1994 and 1996 when they captured Kandahar and Kabul respectively. They quickly established the most orthodox, fundamentalist and rigid theocracy in the world. By 2000, only three governments on the planet were still willing to recognize this extreme regime, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and The United Arab Emirates. Islamic law, or Sharia, became the governing law of Afghanistan and, to the Taliban; Sharia was entirely unambiguous in its tenets. The Taliban quickly plunged the country into what, by western standards, could only be described as a new Dark Age, especially in their treatment of women. America, and American values were anathema to the Taliban. We will be anathema to them should they ever return to power, which, at the present time, does not seem so farfetched.

While the Taliban may have had no designs on territory outside of its own borders, Al Qaeda presented a much different picture. A basic premise of Al Qaeda thinking was, and is, an obligation to not only rid “Muslim lands” of the influence of infidels (think Americans and other westerners) but also to depose those Muslim leaders who had strayed from orthodox Islam and, especially, those Muslims who were hosts to American or other Western forces and who were, otherwise, receptive to American culture and influence. Al Qaeda is as much at war with Muslims who have strayed from Islamic law and Islamic culture as they are against the west. In this regard, Al Qaeda has no more qualms about killing or maiming Muslims than they do about murdering westerners.

For Al Qaeda to mount their trademark, well coordinated, well-planned, attacks using remarkably well-disciplined and well-trained foot soldiers, they have needed host counties that would accord them freedom of movement, money transfer capability, availability of training facilities and sufficient cover and infrastructure to allow them to operate rather openly. When they became persona non grata in Sudan in 1996, Afghanistan was under Taliban control and happy to have them.

Many intelligence experts believe that Al Qaeda has morphed into an entirely decentralized entity as a result of the Bush Administration’s successful destruction of their senior field command, and that Al Qaeda provides little more than inspiration to a multitude of self-professed terrorists, operating out of numerous countries, apparently, including the United States. Others believe Al Qaeda remains a lethal force and continues to plan attacks and issue directives to their operatives throughout the world. More than likely, there are elements of truth to both suppositions. What is most assuredly true, however, is that we can never allow Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations that threaten our interests to secure sanctuary in Afghanistan or any other country.

Presently, the military consensus appears to be that Taliban forces are gaining strength in many of the tribal areas of Afghanistan where American forces are either absent or only fleetingly represented. General McChrystal’s recommendations to beef up our presence in Afghanistan should have come as a surprise to no one, especially given the successes on the battlefield in those areas where American forces have established relationships with tribal leaders. General McChrystal’s recommendations are simply to provide the support necessary to replicate these successes in other tribal areas in which the Taliban operates. Even The New York Times, generally no great supporter of American war efforts in this part of the world, acknowledged in its lead news story on page one of last Sunday’s edition (Sunday, November 22, 2009), that Afghan militias, with the help of U.S. forces are engaging the Taliban in several parts of the country. This willingness of Afghan militias to take up arms against the Taliban is an extraordinarily positive development that deserves all the encouragement America can provide. One can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those American forces and Afghan militias who are actively, and jointly, pursuing victory against the Taliban to observe the long, drawn-out response to General McChrystal’s request for the additional troops he feels are needed there.

Defeat in Afghanistan, or any outcome that gives the Taliban a foothold anywhere in the country, should not be considered an option. The Taliban were co-conspirators and, therefore, partners with Al Qaeda in the greatest mass murder of Americans in history…in an act of war in which America lost more of its people than in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There are approximately 30,000,000 men, women and children in Afghanistan, millions of whom have staked their destiny on an American commitment to rid their country of extraordinarily oppressive Taliban rule. Anything less than victory against the Taliban forces could well result in a bloodbath of Afghan men and women who cheered the overthrow of the Taliban by voting in the country’s first-ever free election, by joining the new and freely elected government, by men who enlisted in the Afghan security forces, by men and women who dared to enjoy music, by women who chose to throw away their niqabs and their hijabs, who enrolled in schools and took jobs and even dared to venture out of their homes unsupervised by a male relative. We had a reason for going into Afghanistan and it wasn’t merely to punish the Taliban, it was to remove them from power and to make sure that they, and other copycat fundamentalists in the Islamic world, with their dark-ages mentality, never threaten us again.

And so General McChrystal has done what he was sent there to do. He has taken command; he has surveyed the needs with (his own) boots on the ground and he has made his assessment of what is needed to achieve our objectives. We believe that President Obama, after all his deliberations, will approve sending all, or most, of the additional troops General McChrystal has requested. But make no mistake. The delay in making a demonstration of resoluteness (i.e., dithering) has most certainly given rise to the notion among those who would help us and those who would hurt us (think Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran, North Korea, etc.) that America does not have the fortitude to stay the course and succeed.

Last week, in another context, our Attorney General, when asked about the possibility of losing the KSM trial in federal court said defeat was not an option. Unfortunately, given the absurd decision he made, the options are no longer his to choose. In Afghanistan, the President has been studying numerous courses of action for a long time and we trust he has chosen one where defeat cannot be the outcome.

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One response to “Afghanistan: A decision long overdue”

  1. mkaback says:

    It was estimated in 2001, after the attacks in the US, that radical fundamentalists made up only 1-2% of the world’s Muslim population. Many have estimated that since that time, in light of numerous actions taken (or not taken) by the West, that that number has increased substantially throughout the world. The current Muslim population of the world is about 1.5 billion people and increasing more rapidly than any other group on earth. Using 2001 figures, this means that there were between 15 million and 30 million radical fundamentalist Muslims on earth then and significantly more now, and ever growing. If these represent the major constituency of the “terrorists”, then 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, will NEVER bring terrorism under control, or, to use your words, ACHIEVE VICTORY. Military might and force will not defeat these philosophies, rather it will only make them more strident. THERE MUST BE OTHER ANSWERS!!!

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