In war, victory belongs to the most persevering. Unfortunately, the endurance and political will to persist through a tough military slog like Afghanistan are precious commodities -- particularly given tough economic times and given complicated military and political objectives. No one would accuse the current American foreign policy establishment of being tough or persevering. So the defeatist critique of General Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy is becoming more popular, and a growing chorus of nay-sayers, armed with copious pessimism but lacking in core strategic arguments, are now rising up to counsel...defeat.
Consider the latest navel-gazing essay on the war, penned by Council on Foreign Relations chief Richard Haass, titled "We're not Winning. It's not Worth it.”
Haass has sung this tune before. In 2006, he hit all the same notes deriding the surge of forces into Mesopotamia, arguing that Iraq was "not winnable" and questioning the utility of injecting additional brigades directly into the population centers. He was wrong then, and he's wrong now.
Let’s take a look at what he has to say:
After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do. The first thing we need to recognize is that fighting this kind of war is in fact a choice, not a necessity. The United States went to war in October 2001 to oust the Taliban government, which had allowed Al Qaeda to operate freely out of Afghanistan and mount the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban were routed; members of Al Qaeda were captured or killed, or escaped to Pakistan. But that was a very different war, a necessary one carried out in self-defense. It was essential that Afghanistan not continue to be a sanctuary for terrorists who could again attack the American homeland or U.S. interests around the world.
This is the grand daddy of contradictions. In one breath Haass argues that Afghanistan is a "war of choice." In the next, he argues that it was a war of necessity after 9/11, laying out strategic objectives that haven't changed since the initial invasion. We still must deny the Taliban and their al Qaeda brethren an operating base in Afghanistan. We still must plug the terrorist seepage from neighboring Pakistan (with local UAVs and forces along the border region being the best way to accomplish this). And we still must deliver violent Islamic fundamentalism an unquestionable strategic defeat, with the understanding that the global terrorist movement is fueled by the indecision and perceived weaknesses of major powers.
A counterinsurgency is the most difficult style of warfare for a democracy to wage. It requires a precisely tailored strategy, with the right amount of resources, a well-conceived concept of operations with a matching political playbook, all employed for the right amount of time. As the surge of forces into the Hindu Kush nears completion, we edge closer to synchronizing these factors in a cohesive, functional way forward – the precise calculus that will ultimately stabilize the nation, restore its institutions, and deny America's enemy the politico-military victory they so desperately seek. These things are possible and achievable. General Petraeus proved that in Iraq, and – if we're able to squelch nervous armchair defeatism here at home – he'll prove it again in Afghanistan.