Building a Non-Partisan Afghan Strategy

President Obama’s political advisors are sabotaging any chance our troops in Afghanistan will get the best war strategy anytime soon.   Obama should ignore his political advisers to make a non-partisan strategy decision and then focus on winning the war.  Unless he’s already made up his mind to not make up his mind.

Yesterday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief political advisor, bought his boss more time — read further endangering our troops — to make the politically volatile decision on a new Afghanistan strategy.  Emanuel wants to restart the Afghan debate by altogether forestalling the central question of choosing the best war strategy by interposing a preliminary question: “whether in fact there’s an Afghan partner.”  

Emanuel’s maneuver is typical of the Obama administration’s politically-inspired Afghan strategy decision-making process.  Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shares the view that politics play a key role in Obama’s war planning. “It’s well known … that there are individuals, including the vice president of the United States, now, unfortunately, the national security adviser [retired Marine Gen. James Jones], the chief political adviser to the president, Mr. Rahm Emanuel who don’t want to alienate the left base of the Democrat Party,” said McCain.

Jones disputes McCain’s criticism that politics is at play in Obama’s war planning.  “The strategy does not belong to any political party, and I can assure you that the president of the United States is not playing to any political base,” said Jones.  But McCain did not back down from his criticism.

The prospect that politics is influencing our war planning is chilling.  And it is well-nigh impossible to believe that Emanuel wasn’t stating precisely what the president himself believes.

Recently, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, American’s commander in Afghanistan, delivered to the president a 60-day review of the security situation which recommends a counter-insurgency strategy that requires sending as many as 40,000 more troops to the war zone.  McChrystal warned the U.S. could fail in Afghanistan if it doesn’t quickly adopt that recommendation.

In McChrystal’s words, the next twelve months (which apparently commenced on the date of his report, August 30) are critical.  His report warns that if we aren’t successful in that time, defeating the Taliban insurgency may become impossible.

Failure in Afghanistan could have serious long-term security implications for America.  The region could slip into a maelstrom of conflict that leaves Afghanistan in anarchy and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, vulnerable to extremists.  It could embolden opponents around the world and betray the Afghan people.

Recognizing the growing problem in Afghanistan Obama gathered his national security team five times since August — most recently last Wednesday — to study McCrystal’s report and to identify the appropriate response.  But Obama’s war strategy decision-making process, as McCain alleges, is influenced by domestic politics and not just battlefield challenges.  Consider three examples.

Emanuel’s politically-inspired debate topic change is a straw man.  We already have an Afghan partner, President Hamid Karzai, who will be re-elected after an expected runoff election.  Pretending Obama needs to delay his strategy decision in order to conduct more “analysis” to determine if we have “an Afghan partner ready to … become a true partner in governing” stretches credulity to its limits.  Rahm, we’re talking about Afghanistan.  It’s one of the most corrupt places on the planet and no matter how long we search we won’t find a corruption-free leader.  Let’s accept Karzai, warts and all, and get on with the war and stop playing political games. 

Vice President Joe Biden is Obama’s leading pessimist on Afghanistan and is providing Obama with politically-inspired war advice. Press reports indicate Biden advised Obama to reduce the scope of the Afghan mission in part because he believes Democratic Party support for the war is not sustainable and overall domestic support is turning against the war, with just 29 percent supporting more troops in a recent CBS News poll. Perhaps Biden also believes that Obama’s presidency could become linked to a war that may not be winnable.

Reportedly, Biden rejects McCrystal’s recommendation that we need more troops for the mission.  Rather, the vice president favors a counter-terrorism approach that theoretically uses special forces and drone aircraft to hunts down the insurgents, a more politically acceptable mission because it could be done – again, theoretically – without additional troops. 

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, disfavors the politically hot “additional combat forces to Afghanistan” request as well.   He recommends Obama refocus the mission on increasing and accelerating our efforts to support the Afghan security forces to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation.  

Levin’s proposal “…could form the core of a compromise approach to the conflict,” according to the Wall Street Journal.   The Journal states it would give Obama a “face-saving way” to turn-down McCrystal’s politically unpopular troop increase request in favor of a small plus-up of military trainers.  A defense appointee characterized Levin’s proposal as “…the least-bad of a bunch of really bad options.”

Such politically-inspired advice is unlikely to deliver victory.  Rather, victory in Afghanistan, according to McChrystal, requires a counter-insurgency strategy which he believes will produce the desired end state- a stable region that denies sanctuary to al Qaeda and its allies.

Consider the elements of a non-partisan strategy that uses McCrystal’s recommendation and avoids the so-called “really bad options.”

First, we need a clear strategy.  Gen. McChrystal recommends a long-term counter-insurgency approach which moves troops closer to larger population centers with a goal of better protecting Afghans from insurgents.  Just how long the counter-insurgency will take to deliver victory remains an open-ended question but the approach worked in Iraq.   Yes, Afghanistan is different from Iraq but so is McCrystal’s application of the strategy.  And don’t pollute McCrystal’s counter-insurgency plan with Biden’s counter-terrorism approach to formulate a “strategy lite.”  That would be disastrous.

Part of McCrystal’s effort in population centers must include provisions for turning the Taliban.  The general said there is little ideological loyalty between local Pashtuns and the Taliban.  Therefore, the coalition should incentivize non-Taliban Pashtun fighters to abandon the militia using amnesty, cash, jobs, weapons and prestige.  But the hardcore Islamic leaders will have to be killed or captured.  

Second, set realistic time limits.  Press reports suggest Obama is trying to put the Afghan war on Washington’s political clock.  That explains why senior administration officials like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insist we have only a small window – maybe 18 months – to show results in Afghanistan.  But counter-insurgencies typically last years to gain security and stability.  It’s the president’s job to keep the nation focused on the end state and not the clock.

Third, provide sufficient resources.  The worse case scenario would be to insist McChrystal conduct a counter-insurgency strategy without sufficient troops and equipment.  That would only kill more troops and guarantee failure.

McChrystal rightly argues the core of his strategy is to regain the initiative.  That will require a substantial surge of forces – maybe 40,000 or even more – to wrestle back the initiative from the Taliban which now controls much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Presumably, McCrystal’s request for more troops isn’t tainted by partisan politics.  He should ask for the appropriate number of troops after conducting a troops-to-task analysis.  He must understand that salami tactics that gradually build-up a much larger force won’t work because, if he comes back to ask for more troops later his credibility will be shot and the nation will balk. 

Fourth, don’t rush the Afghan train-up.  Reportedly Obama wants to double the size of Afghan security forces, speed-up their training and then quickly turn-over Afghanistan’s security to the newly minted force. 

Obama’s Afghan train-up faces many challenges which can’t be hurried.  A 2009 Rand Corporation study, “The Long March: Building an Afghan National Army,” states the army’s ethnic balance is critical especially among Pashtuns who make-up half the population and most of the Taliban.  The army’s current ethnic mix must change if we hope to entice the Pashtuns away from the Taliban and have a credible national army.  There are also funding, discipline, equipment and logistics problems.   And the requirement for more trainers and embedded U.S. teams with Afghan units will continue for many years.

The Rand study concludes that the Afghan army is “…a long way from being able to assume primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s security … [which is clearly] a matter of years” away. 

Finally, Pakistan must become a true partner.  Last weekend Pakistan began operations in South Waziristan, the heartland of Taliban and al Qaeda activity.  We should encourage Islamabad via aid and cooperation to sustain such operations because our victory in Afghanistan depends to a large measure on Pakistan’s efforts to defeat our common Islamist enemies along the 1,610 mile common border. 

Partisan politics has no place in the National Security Council.  Our young people fighting in Afghanistan deserve the best, non-partisan military strategy backed with sufficient resources to defeat the enemy.