August 24, 2009

All or Nothing

With any luck the debate over Afghanistan will heat up in the coming months. Hidden by America’s domestic crisis, the war has reached comically low importance. When Stanley Greenberg, a leading Democratic pollster and strategist, polled the latest Netroots Nation conference, he found that Afghanistan was the primary issue for only 1% of respondents. President Obama likely wants to keep it that way, a suicidal task.

His speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars reverberated across the international press and at home. Though meager, at least a debate has been kindled over what exactly the Afghan war is. “This is a war of necessity,” Obama assured the crowd in Phoenix. “Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.”

Rising body-counts, international criticism, and falling poll numbers - no wonder Obama resorted to invoking 9/11. Forced to defend his surge to a skeptical public, Obama was coerced into casting his fate with Afghanistan’s election. It was his final prayer. Though an inspiring sight, the election unquestionably fell below his expectations. Sensing disappointment over low turnout and fraud, neither he nor his officials hesitated to declare success. Without a legitimate election, Obama has no basis to request more troops and money. Only 24% of Americans approve of another deployment.

As the election process now heads toward chaos, Americans, Europeans, and Muslims are increasingly asking whether Afghanistan is a war of choice or necessity. However this is an irrelevant debate. Having already committed, what Obama plans to do takes precedence.

Feeling the heat, Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen was deployed to quell concerns. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN’s “State of the Union, Mullen claims, “We're not at a point yet where he's [General McChrystal] made any decisions about asking for additional troops.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones have similarly downplayed troop requests and levels, yet Obama officials are the only ones doing so.

A WSJ report cited several officials in General McChrystal's 60-day review that “expect him to ultimately request as many as 10,000 more troops.” A CNN report suggested a similar figure and included the same details of pressure in the White House, while speculation has run as high as 40,000, which sounds closest to the truth. Admiral Mullen spent a large part of his interviews highlighting the Taliban’s growing lethality and sophistication, and admitted Afghanistan is “serious and it is deteriorating.”

If Afghanistan is still destabilizing, if the Taliban is getting stronger, if American and NATO troops were unable to secure large chunks of territory on election days, how will America be able to maintain flat troop levels? Here lies the true heart of debate, not whether the war is necessary or not. “This is the war we're in,” sighed Admiral Mullen.

Now America must choose to go all - to commit fully to war - or figure out an exit strategy.

“I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those estimates," said Senator John McCain in an interview this weekend. “I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I think it's from the people around him and others that I think don't want to see a significant increase in our troops' presence there.”

McCain, a supporter of the war, was nice to buoy Obama, but he reveals the dangerous mindset circulating in the White House. Obama is engaging in political warfare because he’s unsure of military tactics and strategy. He’s watching his poll numbers fall as he loses confidence over health care. Iraq is unnerving people. Another troop deployment to Afghanistan could tip momentum against him and bring the war back to the forefront, where it could damage his domestic ambitions. Obama is trying to fight a measured, limited war, searching for a medium to continue it while maintaining popularity. His strategy is fatally flawed.

Obama must decide whether to commit totally or withdraw. He has no hope in Afghanistan if he isn’t ready to levy potentially 20-40,000 new troops, a trillion dollars for development, and commit upwards of 10, 20, or even 40 years. America needs more troops - either send them or pull out. Instead of hiding or using officials to deny the latest report, Obama must be upfront with the American people, not just Congress. Spell out every troop, every dollar. Mullen and McChrystal constantly cite 18 months as the window Afghanistan must improve by. They must also explain what the plan is if, after 18 months, the Taliban is still growing and collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Limited warfare won’t bring peace to Afghanistan. Surgery is still necessary, not just recovery and rehabilitation. President Obama may truly be undecided on his strategy, but victory is lost if it depends on popularity.


  1. We're on precisely on the same wavelength when it come to the military aspect of this war.

    To the extent, however, that this is a political problem needing a political solution, we have to get serious about our efforts to flip moderate Taliban commanders and their underlings. If we fail to do this, we'll lose this war - just as it's appearing that Iraq is falling into chaos. They have the greivance and the diplomatic prowess of all sides will determine whether they're folded into the political framework in a way that maintains liberal advances there - including but not limited to the emancipation of women - or if they retake the state by force after a failure by the coalition to harness soft power assets.

    Great job. You do good work here.

  2. A political solution seems extremely unlikely, both with "moderate Taliban" and its ideological leadership. The odds of negotiating with Mullah Omar, the only real person to negotiate with, are near zero. Yes women should be allowed education, but can a war truly correct social inequality? Social advances appear necessary for stability, but Afghanistan was able to suffice under Taliban rule. Fundamentally this war isn't about al-Qaeda, but modernizing Afghanistan, a Herculean task.

    President Obama has chosen the military option despite what he may claim, but it remains a measured response. Octopus Mountain doesn't advocate America going all in, but nothing short of total war can achieve the victory Obama is hoping for.

  3. Not that I'm naive enough to think that anything I said would actually come into fruition but we do have a nomial non-military presence with some potential but which is, needless to say, underfunded. Our flipping efforts in Kanahar, for instance, draw a whopping $600/month. This is a joke, though several low-level Taliban have drawn on this resource and broken rank. This war with ad hoc enemies cannot be won with force in the practical sense. Though we certainly have overwhelming hard power, new young men all over Afganistan are taking up the mantle of their fallen comrades to expel the Western occupying forces - largely because - being as dirt poor as they are - have few other options that will impact their state more than this. They can be persuaded by Taliban to join their ranks on thinly built promises of paid work.

    Thanks for putting "moderate" in quotation marks.

  4. Trying to divide and conquer Afghanistan's infinite tribes appears to be an impossible task given America's lack of cultural understanding in the region. Nation building is the only realistic solution to Afghanistan, but considering that estimates range into the 30-40 year territory, one must question how America can protect major building projects without US troops. A high civilian presence necessitates a continual military occupation, which will in turn fuel the insurgency. America must somehow break this vicious cycle.

  5. I heard the Taliban runs protection I smell a partnership?