October 27, 2009

Mr. President, make a decision already

Mr. Obama, you must make a decision about the strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan. You must do it now, not in a week, not in ten days, not in a month, but now. American troops are involved in combat operations now - they need to know the plan. Your vacillation, apparent confusion and delays only serve to embolden the enemy and are likely the direct cause of the recent spike in American and coalition casualties. Over 50 American troops have been killed thus far this month. Is there a coherent strategy anywhere in our future?

I understand - and fully support - a review of our strategy in Afghanistan. Obviously what we have been doing has not worked. We have been there for eight years - the situation is still unresolved and our purpose for being there is still undefined. I thought you had stated a policy in March - a counterinsurgency aimed at the defeat of al-Qa'idah. You fired the commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan and gave the mission to General Stan McChrystal. You tasked him to tell you what he needed to get it done.

General McChrystal, regarded as one of the best counterinsurgency operators in the American armed forces, told you he needed 40,000 additional U.S. troops to accomplish the mission. That was probably not the answer you were hoping to hear. Now rather than give the general the resources needed to accomplish the mission you directed, you have decided to take a breather and re-assess the strategy. One wonders if the mission is dictating the resource allocation, or if the resources you are willing to commit now dictate the strategy. I assume the mission remains the same. In any case, the troops are not taking a break while you decide what the strategy will be.

The definition of the mission raises some serious questions that you might consider. Your goals, if I heard you correctly in March, are based on the assumption that al-Qa'idah is still present in Afghanistan, and that presence constitutes a threat to the United States. While you are re-assessing the strategy, you might want to also re-read your intelligence community reports that clearly indicate that except for maybe a few holdouts, al-Qa'idah has moved on to Pakistan and points beyond.

After the mass exodus to Pakistan in late 2001 and early 2002 following their defeat at Tora Bora, many al-Qa'idah fighters moved on to carry on the fight in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. That didn't work out too well for them - eventually U.S. forces in Iraq and Saudi security forces in the kingdom decimated al-Qa'idah's ranks. The remnants appear to have moved on to places like Yemen and Somalia. Wherever they are, it is not Afghanistan.

So, Mr. President, just who is the enemy you are seeking to defeat? The Taliban? While the Taliban are a threat to the Afghan government and are now major supporters of the narco-economy of the country, they hardly represent a threat to the security of the United States. The thought that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would re-create an al-Qa'idah threat to the United States is a stretch as well. Most of the al-Qa'idah leadership has been killed, captured or marginalized. Their communications, finances and organization are in disarray. Remaining fighters in Pakistan are under pressure from the Central Intelligence Agency's missile strikes and Pakistan Army offensives in the Waziristan area. You could probably prevent al-Qa'idah from returning to Afghanistan by warning the Taliban (or whoever might emerge as the power in Kabul) that if al-Qa'idah returns, so does massive American air power.

In any case, Mr. President, now is the time to fish or cut bait - you have had more than ample time to make up your mind. You can conduct the counterinsurgency you ordered, or you can re-direct the strategy to that of counter-terrorism. Either will keep America secure, but you have to make a decision. The Taliban, al-Qa'idah and any other groups that wish us ill need to know that you can make a decision and then order the appropriate action to execute it.

Until you make that decision, there will likely be increased attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban wants you to re-focus your efforts on a counter-terrorism strategy aimed at al-Qa'idah in the region - that includes Pakistan - rather than on a counterinsurgency beefing up American troop presence in Afghanistan. While that is a reason in itself to not to go with a change in strategy, the bottom line remains that the Taliban is not the real enemy.

Either way, Mr. President, make a decision. Our troops deserve clear direction and adequate resources. Do it now.