September 22, 2009

Commander in Afghanistan wants more troops - now what?

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

A classic battle between an anti-war administration and the military is forming. President Obama, elected in part on a platform to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now finds himself in an awkward position between his constituency and the military he commands.

Soon after taking office, he committed to winning the war in Afghanistan. Actually, he committed to defeating al-Qa'idah in general and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are inherent problems with this strategy. There are almost no al-Qa'idah fighters left in Afghanistan - in fact, there have not been any significant numbers of al-Qa'idah in the country since their flight from Tora Bora in December 2001.

There has been a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, thanks to the neglect of the Bush Administration. The new administration has committed to the defeat of the Taliban - I am not sure why. The Taliban pose no threat to the United States, however, they do pose a real threat to the fledgling Afghan government.

The real enemy is al-Qa'idah, not the Taliban. Where is al-Qa'idah? They have moved. Initially they resettled in the lawless tribal region in Pakistan along the Afghan border. After the Pakistan branch of the Taliban became a credible threat to the government in Islamabad, the Pakistani military moved into the area and has contained - but not defeated - them. Al-Qa'idah moved much of its membership to Saudi Arabia. After some attacks against the government there, Saudi security forces decimated the organization - the remnants have now moved to Yemen and Somalia.

Al-Qa'idah is not in Afghanistan. We are, however - a military force with possibly the wrong enemy. So what we have now is a commitment of the new president to intervene in an Afghan civil war. Accusations by President Obama and his supporters that the previous administration took their "eyes off the ball" no longer hold water.

That is exactly what has happened here. To his credit, Obama has recently warned of "mission drift." Perhaps that is what the President means when he says he needs a strategy review. Unfortunately, he has already augmented the force level to almost 70,000 troops. In effect, he "owns" the war.

Now that the President has given the mission to his commanders, he smartly asked them what they need to do the job. The answer is simple - more troops. Read General McChrystal's assessment.

I do not know General McChrystal personally, but I know people who have served with him. No doubt he has provided an accurate assessment of what military force will be required to accomplish the mission - to defeat the Taliban. Whether or not that is the right mission is another question. The general believes he needs 240,000 troops (total, not just American) to accomplish the task.

The President is caught in his own trap. Does he now change the mission because it is politically difficult to send more troops to Afghanistan? The political difficulty is obvious - Defense Secretary Gates has told McChrystal not to ask for more troops until the end of the year. What he actually said was that the Pentagon was working out how the general would ask for more troops. What a joke - ever hear of a phone call or message? It happens thousands of times every day.

Crunch time is here, Mr. President. You have to decide if you have defined the right mission, then decide if you are going to support the troops you have tasked to accomplish it.