August 25, 2010

Afghanistan and that pesky withdrawal date

Within the space of just two days, two American general officers have made contrasting remarks on the July 2011 withdrawal date mandated by President Barack Obama. Military officers, or more correctly, military officers without a political agenda, regard these artificial, arbitrary and politically-motivated timelines as dangerous. They unnecessarily put our troops at risk and jeopardize the mission.

General James Conway, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said that a specific date gives "sustenance" to the Taliban. His words: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance….In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” He quickly sought to soften those remarks - after all, he is still a serving military officer and is expected to toe the Administration line whether he believes it or not. Obviously, he does not.

General Conway is absolutely correct in his analysis. Of course when the Administration announces that it will begin a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011, the Taliban assesses that the Americans are not in this to the finish, that at some point they will pack up and go home. It was Ho Chi Minh who once said that Americans soon tire of the fight and go home. I fear his words spoken decades ago may be accurate today.

What the President and his generals need to say is very simple, "American troops will not withdraw until our objectives our met. We will continue to hunt you down and kill you unless you give up the fight." We need to convey to the Taliban that we are in this to win, not merely to score political points at home. This needs to be about victory in the war on terrorism, not victories in elections in the United States.

As it stands now, the Taliban believe that their victory begins in July 2011. Once President Obama has merely floated the idea of a withdrawal date, it will be difficult to back down from that position. It is further compounded when the Vice President makes off-the-talking-points remarks like, "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." Granted, Biden is not in the chain of command* (neither is Conway for that matter), but he supposedly has the ear of the President. Any wonder the Taliban questions our commitment to winning in Afghanistan?

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, puts a different spin on the withdrawal date, and then goes a step further and advocates talking to the Taliban.

I must admit to being surprised when I heard the general make his remarks. I am of the opinion that we are pursuing the wrong strategy in Afghanistan - I favor less troops and a counter-terrorism operation aimed only at the bad guys, not the counterinsurgency operation recommended by General Petraeus and approved by the President earlier in the year. A counterinsurgency requires more troops, a lot of nation building and concurrent diplomatic activity, and inevitably means talking to the Taliban.

General Petraeus is a brilliant strategic thinker, but I think he is wrong on this one. This is not Iraq, these are not Arabs - they are Pushtuns who have absolutely no code of honor except Pushtunwali, loyalty to the Pushtuns. They cannot be trusted - the Pushtuns who have joined the Taliban are true believers. The only way to deal with them is to hunt them down and kill them - you cannot talk to them.

As far as the withdrawal date, the general's spin was nearly world class. He said that date was a transition date, not necessarily a withdrawal date - perhaps he and the Vice President should compare talking points. Until the President retracts his ill-advised politically-motivated July 2011 withdrawal date, the Taliban will continue to hold out until then.

* For those not aware of the military chain of command, orders flow from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the Commander of Central Command (General Mattis) and then to General Petraeus. Note also the absence of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advises the President and Secretary of Defense.