October 16, 2009
By Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
In March, President Obama thought that defeating al Qaeda and
the Taliban was critical to national security. "[I]f the Afghan
government falls to the Taliban -- or allows al Qaeda to go
unchallenged," he warned, "that country will again be a base for
terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly
In August, the president reiterated the need to succeed in
Afghanistan, when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars, "This is
not a war of choice, but a war of necessity." He went on to vow to
"give our troops the tools and equipment they need" to "defeat al
Qaeda and its extremist allies."
What a difference two months make. What was grim determination
then is evaporating into slippery equivocation. Some administration
officials now hint at settling for something less than victory over
both the Taliban and al Qaeda. And they suggest that we go for a
"smaller footprint" -- not the full contingent of additional troops
the commanders in the field and others back here believe we
What's changed since March to account for this change in
strategy? For one thing, the Afghan elections did not go as well as
hoped. And the administration is changing its tune about the nature
of the threat -- suggesting that somehow the Taliban is not as much
of a threat as al Qaeda.
The real reason, however, appears to be a bad case of cold feet.
Prominent congressional Democrats are joining administration allies
such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to question the strategy
approved by the president last March. Like Lyndon Johnson with
respect to Vietnam, Barack Obama may be starting to adjust the
military commitment to suit his domestic and political agendas.
What has not changed is America's enduring strategic interests
in winning the war. This is something Mr. Obama articulated clearly
in speeches before and after his election.
We still need to defeat the Taliban and deny al Qaeda and other
terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. We still need to help
create a stable government there so we can leave without having to
return were the Taliban to take over again. We still need to help
Pakistan secure the tribal badlands along the border and prevent al
Qaeda from supporting insurgencies there and in Afghanistan.
If these goals were good in March or August, why are they
questionable now? Why was it necessary to defeat the Taliban in
August but too difficult to pursue that goal now?
We should remember that similarly defeatist things were said
about prevailing against the insurgents in Anbar province, yet we
defeated them. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who led the Anbar
operation, should know what is achievable better than civilian
analysts in the White House. And he stated flatly that changing our
counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda into a
simple counterterrorism operation against al Qaeda would be a
recipe for "Chaos-istan." Settling for anything less than defeating
the Taliban and al Qaeda means accepting perpetual chaos in
Afghanistan and trying to "manage it from outside."
The counterterrorism strategy recommended by the vice president
and his allies has already failed miserably in both Afghanistan and
in Iraq. The Bush administration's minimalist approach to
Afghanistan focused narrowly on counterterrorism rather than
counterinsurgency operations to free up military assets for the
Iraq war. That allowed the Taliban to regroup across the border in
Pakistan and make a violent resurgence.
The "small footprint" strategy in Iraq failed as well. Success
came only when it was abandoned in favor of Gen. David Petraeus'
counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the troop surge in early
2007. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has expressed
skepticism about a narrower focus that relies on drones and a few
special forces to defeat al Qaeda.
In considering the president's new Afghanistan strategy, watch
out for false distinctions and counterintuitive arguments. They are
sure signs that dissembling is about to take place. For example,
when an administration official says that the Taliban is not al
Qaeda, the implication is that we don't have to worry so much about
But of course we must worry. The Taliban still gives safe haven
to al Qaeda. If they and their allies come to control more
territory or the Afghan government, then those havens will expand.
The issue isn't whether the Taliban and al Qaeda are identical;
it's whether they are cooperating.
It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the administration
is trying to rationalize a retreat. It is one thing to adjust
strategy and tactics for victory, quite another to drop the goal of
victory altogether because you don't want to pay the price. That's
a question of will, not strategy.
In his eagerness to justify a decision not to send more troops
to Afghanistan, the president is playing one of the oldest games in
the book -- defining success downward and pretending that nothing
at all has changed.
But some things very real are indeed changing -- the definitions
of victory and defeat.
Holmes is vice president of foreign- and
defense-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of
"Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st
First appeared in the Washington Times
In March, President Obama thought that defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban was critical to national security. "[I]f the Afghan government falls to the Taliban -- or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged," he warned, "that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
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