Friday, November 20, 2009

The stakes in Afghanistan

Guest post by J.F. Murphy

J.F. Murphy is a former Marine infantry officer and Iraq veteran who graduated from the U.S. Navy's SERE program. He is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project.

Ed. note: This is Jim's second guest post at The Reaction. You can find his first (from back in May), on how "enhanced" interrogation undermines American security and violates military values, here. -- MJWS


After nearly two months of deliberation, some have criticized the Obama Administration of foot-dragging a decision on Afghanistan. As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I could not disagree more. If the previous administration had put such care into its approach toward Iraq and Afghanistan, we might not be facing the difficulties we face today.

An informed decision is not the same as indecision. Given the complexities of securing Afghanistan and turning the tide against the insurgency, it is critical that our commander-in-chief understand the nature of the challenge, and I applaud the president for taking the time to acquire that understanding.

But to succeed in Afghanistan, we need more than a president who understands what we're up against. We need the American people to understand. To achieve this understanding, I would suggest that there are two major trends in our favor that the American people ought to know.

First, Pakistan has finally recognized the need to confront al Qaeda and the Taliban within its own country, conducting significant operations over the last year to retake Taliban controlled territory.

This is a tremendous shift by Pakistan, which has historically funded terrorist organizations aimed at attacking India. They are in the fight against terrorism now. This gives us the opportunity to crush al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region, with Pakistan attacking them from its own territory in the east, while U.S. and allied forces attack from the West in Afghanistan. This is a vice we should tighten.

Second, America now "does" counter-insurgency. The attitude, tactical skills, and operational ability needed to defeat an insurgency are very different from the conventional warfare abilities that have guided our military thinking since World War II.

Leaders such as Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have recognized this fact and begun to conduct military operations accordingly. The Army and Marine Corps also gained counter-insurgency skills the hard way, during the Iraqi crucible, learning that the key to defeating insurgents lies in protecting the population.

Success in Afghanistan will only come if the Afghan people see the U.S.-led mission in a positive light, which requires the military to put a premium on protecting people. With a counter-insurgency strategy firmly in place, securing this long-term support has now become a possibility.

Of course, these developments alone do not guarantee easy success in Afghanistan. There are, however, no real alternatives. The two most popular suggestions – walking away from Afghanistan or returning to a failed "counter-terror" strategy – carry far too much risk.

Walking away from Afghanistan would be a disaster. We did that once before, after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the 1980s. The result? Without an American hand in the region, Afghanistan disintegrated into chaos. Pakistan supported the least bad path toward stability, the Taliban. The Taliban eventually gave legal sanctuary to al Qaeda, which used Afghan territory to prepare the 9/11 attacks.

Were we to leave Afghanistan now, the region would spiral out of control once again. Except this time, Pakistan is a nuclear nation. Getting out of the game now would allow extremists to get closer to nuclear weapons, a decidedly unacceptable situation.

Similarly, a counter-terrorism approach to Afghanistan is no real solution. We have been trying that for eight years, with large unit operations to hunt bandits, and drones to kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Though we have eliminated a significant number of bad guys, we have also alienated a lot of fence-sitters, and the insurgency has grown stronger. Clearly, we need a new approach.

So what should that approach look like? First, the U.S. must commit to defeating the elements of the Taliban who would either challenge the legitimate governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or harbor members of trans-national terrorist organizations.

Then we need to follow up these commitments with troops and time. Give General McChrystal what he needs to get the situation under control, and the time he needs to train more Afghan forces. The sooner the Afghans can protect themselves, the sooner we can bring our troops home.

There won't be a Victory-Afghanistan day that we will all be able to look back on thirty years from now. We live in a different world that includes a different kind of war and a different kind of victory. But the path to that 21st century victory is on the table right now. A steadfast commitment from the United States will ultimately help the Afghan people to pursue a better future for themselves and bolster our security by denying safe haven to terrorists and extremists.

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