Right now, as commander-in-chief, President Obama must lead on Afghanistan, or we risk losing what he has described as the "central front" in our battle against al Qaeda.
This past March, the President laid out his mission for the war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” And he inserted his top commander to pull it off, General Stanley McChrystal.
At this moment, the situation in this fragile region is deteriorating. The insurgency is growing more effective and momentum is not on our side. Deaths of American soldiers are on the rise, and our troops lack the resources to turn the tide. General McChrystal, has recently reported that unless the President provides the full resources of a counter-insurgency strategy and does so quickly, we risk "mission failure" within 12 months. This is a view supported by General David Petraeus, now head of US Central Command.
So far, the President has been hesitant to make any decision at all and has seemingly put General McChrystal’s request for additional troops in a drawer. With his top commander making quite clear what is needed, it appears President Obama is more in search of a political solution at home than a military strategy for Afghanistan. As delay and indecision put the lives of our troops in danger, the time for the President to act is now.
To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is exceedingly complex. Political corruption is rampant. More than just al Qaeda, our troops must do battle with the Taliban and the dangerous terrorist network of Jalaluddin Haqqani. The terrain and proximity to Pakistan provide additional geographic and geopolitical challenges. Not to mention, the harsh Afghan winter approaching and the toll that it takes on our men and women.
Yet, the fundamental question that the President must answer is straightforward. Is he willing to fully commit to completing the mission he laid out not even seven months ago, or will he declare that success in Afghanistan is a bridge too far and pull our troops out? Neither option is attractive, but there is no real third way.
There can be no politically-expedient middle ground. To provide just a partial commitment to Afghanistan will not advance our mission, and will needlessly cost American lives.
Some, however, in the White House – most notably Vice President Biden – believe the U.S. should draw down ground operations, focus on training Afghan security forces, and rely on targeted air strikes against suspected al Qaeda members. They advocate for a type of small-footprint counter-terrorism strategy. Such a proposal may provide comfort and political cover to liberals opposed to providing more resources in Afghanistan, but it is a prescription for failure.
General McChrystal has made clear a scaled-back strategy is incapable of fulfilling our mission. Our ground forces would not have the support to take and hold new ground. Without greater security, our troops assigned to train Afghan soldiers would be dangerously susceptible to attack. What’s more, discounting the threat from the Taliban and allowing them to take hold in Afghanistan would create chaos and ensure al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan, just as there was prior to the 9/11 attacks.
In Afghanistan, we cannot consider al Qaeda without recognizing the threat posed by the Taliban and other networks that serve to enable al Qaeda’s efforts and provide safe haven. The Afghan security forces are not prepared to defend against a Taliban offensive on the central populations and the government. Presuming that a drawn back U.S. presence right now would not lead to an empowered Taliban and consequently a stronger al Qaeda is dangerously naïve.
Instead, to defeat al Qaeda will require a willingness to engage them and the Taliban where they are operating, to disrupt their cells and the flow of information and resources, and to receive buy-in from regular Afghans who hold the key to uprooting extremists. None of this is possible without the full resources of a counter-insurgency strategy being requested by General McChrystal.
If we have learned anything from our recent experiences in warfare, from Vietnam to Iraq, it is that wars must be run by military leaders, not politicians in Washington. Today, Generals McChrystal and Petraeus are the brightest military minds we possess. As they have found, if the President still desires to "dismantle and defeat" al Qaeda, he will have to commit to providing the overwhelming force that is needed to carry out the job.
If we as a nation decide it is worth the risk of just one American life to engage an enemy in war, we must do so with a full commitment to achieving our objective – and be clear in what that objective is. It is immoral to perpetuate a strategy incapable of success simply because it is the most aggressive course the President’s political base will allow him to follow. This administration regularly demonstrates a belief that Washington knows best. But this is one instance where such arrogance would put the lives of our troops in immense danger.
The clock is ticking and the stakes are high. This is understandably an uneasy task for the President, but these are the moments in which real leaders reject political temptation and assert what is needed for the long-term security of America and its allies. Should President Obama choose to fulfill the commitments he laid out in March and answer the calls of his General, he will be supported by Republicans in Congress and Americans across this nation who appreciate the consequences of failure.
Should he instead, however, choose to take the path of least political resistance, reject the request of General McChrystal, and install a limited strategy incapable of success, he not only risks weakening his status as commander-in-chief, but also risks the lives of American troops.
This is no time for partisan political solutions. This is no time to vote ‘present.’ Now is the time for the leadership that we all hope the President possesses.