September 22, 2010 | Commentary on Afghanistan, National Security and Defense

Try to Win it, Bam

Hoping to see significant progress in Afghanistan? Senior US military officials say it won't happen any time soon. Their current task, apparently -- with a November NATO meeting looming and the Obama administration's next strategy review a month after that -- is to lower expectations.

Indeed, with the war not going well, some have concluded that victory must be impossible. And as surely as the sun rises, these same people claim it's mainly George W. Bush's fault. "Distracted" by Iraq, he "neglected" Afghanistan. President Obama "inherited" an unwinnable mess.

Could President Bush have done a better job in Afghanistan? Sure. But most of the major problems confronting us there today have little to do with his policies. In fact, many result directly from decisions made by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

First, there's President Obama's insistence on a public timeline for withdrawal. By promising, at the same time that he announced he would increase US troop strength, that he would start withdrawing those troops 18 months later -- regardless of the situation on the ground -- he undermined his own strategy for victory before it could be implemented.

Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a US congressional delegation that the promise to begin withdrawing US forces next July gave the Taliban a "morale boost." And Marine Gen. James Conway said the withdrawal date is "giving our enemy sustenance" -- leading them to believe they can simply wait out NATO forces.

Second, there was Obama's prolonged review of Afghanistan policy, which devolved into months of hand-wringing and equivocation. A leaked cable from the US ambassador to Afghanistan questioned Karzai's reliability. That sent mixed signals to friends and foes alike and caused key allies, including Karzai, to doubt our commitment.

Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh recently said Karzai now lacks faith in America's commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban. That lack of confidence, Saleh reported, has led Karzai to believe he must cut deals with Taliban leaders to protect himself.

Third, there's the administration's meek stance toward Pakistan. It has never given Islamabad an ultimatum to stop playing a double game with the United States and the Taliban. Yes, dealing with Pakistan is hard, but the White House could have handled matters differently.

While Obama deserves credit for expanding the US drone campaign in tribal border areas and helping to degrade al Qaeda's operational capabilities, he has yet to convince Pakistan's military leaders to crack down consistently and comprehensively on Taliban sanctuaries.

The administration has trumpeted its Pakistan policy as a success because Pakistan's military ousted pro-Taliban militants from the Swat Valley last summer and conducted military operations in South Waziristan last fall. That's all certainly welcome -- but not enough. Until Pakistan cracks down decisively on the Afghan Taliban leadership and groups like the Haqqani network, US goals to stabilize and secure Afghanistan will remain elusive.

Finally, the administration's highly publicized campaign to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan has backfired. Gen. David Petraeus' policies in Iraq were far more subtle and successful. The administration's recent decision to back off its high-profile anti-corruption strategy is a sign he may be exerting greater influence over overall Afghanistan policy.

There needs to be balance between our military and political strategy -- a principle Petraeus recognized and implemented in Iraq. We can hope his strategy works in Afghanistan, as well, particularly now that he has the added 30,000 troops in place. But coming on the heels of the administration's bungled anti-corruption campaign and saddled with the ill-considered withdrawal timeline, the general's job is going to be much harder.

The president, perhaps sensing his strategy is not working, now seems to be "defining down" the threat and, consequently, the mission. It's mainly about al Qaeda, he says -- and not the Taliban which gives them sanctuary.

In lowering the bar for victory in this way, Obama appears to be looking for the exit. Perhaps he's opening the door to a claim the war will be successful even if the Taliban were to return to power.

But that wouldn't be success. Should the Taliban regain dominance in Afghanistan, it would be a defeat for American arms, a setback for American leadership and an invitation to more terror threats to Americans.

Let us hope President Obama will turn things around in Afghanistan. But if he doesn't, it will be the direct consequence of decisions he has made -- not Bush's fault.

Critics of the former president said defeat was inevitable in Iraq, too, but Bush refused to accept it. Instead, he took bold action, often to his political disadvantage -- and proved the defeatists wrong.

President Obama would do well to show similar vision and courage.

Kim R. Holmes, a former as sistant secretary of state, is a vice president at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post