October 5, 2009

Afghanistan and the White House - can you spell V-I-E-T-N-A-M?

Reading the press accounts and watching the media coverage of the ongoing debate in the Obama Administration over just what our strategy is and will be in Afghanistan unfortunately reminds of the late 1960's and a similar debate on what to do in Vietnam. Do we give the mission to the generals and properly resource their strategy and tactics to execute that mission, or does the White House micromanage the war from the West Wing?

If you recall the meddling from the White House in Vietnam - down to the actual daily targets to be bombed - you can see it starting again. When you have Vice President Joe Biden - whose only military expertise is listening to stories that his Army National Guard son might have overheard while serving as a military lawyer in Iraq - offering strategies that conflict with General Stanley McChrystal, the general on the ground with decades of experience, you have to wonder. When Senator Carl Levin - whose military experience pales in comparison to Joe Biden's - downplays General McChrystal as just someone down chain of command, you have to worry. Military strategy formulated in the Vice President's office and the Senate does not inspire confidence.

The only person in the inner circle with any meaningful military experience is national security advisor, retired Marine general James Jones, and he has not ventured his own opinion. If his stance on Afghanistan policy is anything like his stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions, don't expect anything other than the administration's nebulous line. Jones must be one of the few people left that are not convinced that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear weapon.

So, who is President Obama going to trust? His political cronies who might be superb at organizing activists in inner city Chicago, or a professional military staff with years of training and experience? President George Bush listened to his generals and let them execute the mission of removing Saddam Husayn - a major sccess. Then, however, he changed the mission to one of occupation and nation building based on misguided advice of his political counselors. Now we appear to be watching the same mistake that President Johnson made in the 1960's, that President Bush made after successfully removing Saddam - listening to politicians instead of soldiers.

As I have said and written on numerous occasions, we need to re-evaluate what the mission is in Afghanistan. That debate needs to include politicians to be sure, but not in the formulation of actual strategy and tactics. The White House - which includes Biden - should define the mission and order Secretary of Defense Gates to determine the strategy and tactics, as well as the resources required to accomplish the task.

If the mission is to hunt down and destroy the remnants of al-Qa'idah, then Afghanistan is probably not the best venue for that operation. If that is in fact the mission, then the President better start looking at operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. There has been little al-Qa'idah presence in Afghanistan since late 2001. In the last few years, thanks to the CIA drone operations and Pakistani military incursions in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border tribal areas, al-Qa'idah has largely moved from Pakistan as wel, although some remain. Others initially moved to Saudi Arabia, but after being decimated by Saudi security forces, most have moved to Yemen and Somalia.

If the mission in Afghanistan is to defeat the Taliban and provide security so that Afghanistan can stand up as a country, fine, but say so. To continue claiming that the presence of almost 70,000 American troops plus scores of thousands of Afghan and NATO forces is to defeat al-Qa'idah is somewhere between disingenuous and misleading, or perhaps just naive. Some pundits have gone further - Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass has stated that with the departure of al-Qa'idah, Afghanistan is no longer a war of necessity, but Obama's war of choice.

Whatever the decision, it needs to be made now. The longer the President and Secretary Gates publicly discuss the various options and strategies, the more disoriented and confused we appear. That sends a signal to our enemies that now is the time to create what insurgents term a "significant emotional event." A significant emotional event - a classic insurgent tactic - is one that galvanizes your enemy's public opinion, resulting in a demand that the targeted government end its involvement in the war.

Knowing they cannot defeat American and allied forces in the field, the insurgents will try to shift the battle to public opinion in the United States. It was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968 that was the significant emotional event of that war, despite the fact that the actual combat virtually destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable fighting force. This weekend's mass attacks on two remote outposts in Nuristan province are just such operations.

The President needs to make a decision, then get out of his generals' way. Either that, or repeat the mistakes of Johnson and Vietnam.