- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

America is heading toward a colossal defeat in Afghanistan. Unless there is a dramatic change in policy and leadership, the United States will suffer the most calamitous military setback in its history - one that will mark the end of the American moment, the loss of superpower status in the eyes of the world.

President Obama was correct to dismiss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. No military officer - no matter how capable or high-ranking - should be allowed to publicly disrespect his civilian bosses, especially the commander in chief and vice president. This demoralizes our troops in the field and fosters confusion between the civilian and military sectors of government.

Gen. McChrystal exhibited extremely poor judgment in allowing a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine to gain almost unfettered access to his inner circle. He allowed his aides to shoot their mouths off to an antiwar reporter from a countercultural, antiwar magazine. He should have known he was setting himself up for a public-relations fiasco - a showdown with Mr. Obama’s national security team.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is mocked. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry is derided as a back-stabbing opportunist. The U.S. special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, is viewed as incompetent. National Security Adviser James L. Jones is called a “clown.” Aides close to Gen. McChrystal even admit that he was disappointed with his early meetings with Mr. Obama. Gen. McChrystal’s first encounter with the new president was simply a “10-minute photo-op.” He is described as saying the president was “disengaged” as well as “awkward and intimidated” in front of military brass in another meeting.

This all may be true. But going public with it put Gen. McChrystal in an untenable position. He had to go. The norms of military culture dictate that one cannot openly criticize - never mind ridicule - superiors.

Yet the dismissal of Gen. McChrystal reveals the profound failure of Mr. Obama’s wartime leadership. Gen. McChrystal voted for Mr. Obama. He was the president’s handpicked successor to lead the military campaign in Afghanistan. Along with Mr. Obama, it was Gen. McChrystal who formulated - and signed off on - the counterinsurgency strategy now being implemented. He agreed to the strict rules of engagement, which prevent our soldiers from effectively fighting the Taliban for fear of hurting civilians.

In short, Gen. McChrystal was the president’s man: the liberal warrior who was eager to implement nation-building and win the hearts and minds of the population in Afghanistan. He was to execute the postmodern, Obama way of war - transforming American troops into an armed Peace Corps. U.S. soldiers are not to kill terrorists and bomb their sanctuaries. Instead, they are engaged in building roads, ditches and water plants, helping with economic development projects and bonding with the locals. Call it war through social work.

Meanwhile, the key battle for Marjah remains inconclusive. The major offensive of the war - to capture the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar - has been delayed (again). U.S. and NATO casualties are soaring. Afghan President Hamid Karzai no longer believes U.S. forces have the will and staying power to see the war to its end; he has lost trust in America. He is looking to cut power-sharing deals with Taliban factions. U.S. power and prestige is waning not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the region. Gen. McChrystal’s frustration is a symptom of gross incompetence - his and, more important, that of the president. Mr. Obama and his team are incapable of winning the war.

Having Gen. David H. Petraeus replace his former deputy as the commander in Afghanistan is an act of desperation. It is Mr. Obama’s last stand, a desperate gambit to salvage the war effort by turning to the man who reversed the tide of defeat in Iraq. It is doomed to fail. Mr. Obama is changing the deck chairs on the Titanic - no matter what he does, however, the jihadist iceberg is about to sink the American juggernaut.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is the graveyard of empires - a nation whose rugged terrain and collection of disparate warlords and tribes is ideally suited for guerrilla warfare. The vaunted Soviet Red Army was crushed in the 1980s. Imperial Britain was defeated - not once, but twice - during the 19th century. The reason: They got dragged into protracted wars of attrition. Eventually, the fierce, primitive mountains, caves and fighters of Afghanistan wore down much superior forces, slowly bleeding them to death.

America is repeating the mistakes of the past. The problem in Afghanistan is not one of personnel. It is one of strategy. Whether it is Gen. McChrystal or Gen. Petraeus overseeing the war is irrelevant. A deeply flawed strategy will fail no matter who is in charge.

Mr. Obama’s decision to announce the start of a troop withdrawal in July 2011 has guaranteed the war cannot be won. The Taliban is simply waiting America out; their forces are escalating attacks, knowing that by killing more U.S. troops they will encourage an even quicker pullout. Moreover, the Afghan people have no incentive to cooperate with American and NATO forces because they know once the West is gone, they will be left in the lurch. The Taliban and al Qaeda are not going anywhere, while the Yanks are leaving; thus, Islamist retribution for collaboration with the infidels will be swift, brutal and merciless.

Also, the decision not to deploy massive U.S. airpower and ground troops in neighboring Pakistan - especially the porous border areas along the North West Frontier Provinces - has assured the Taliban a safe haven from which to launch a sustained guerrilla campaign against the West. Until the Islamist insurgents are wiped out in Pakistan, the conflict in Afghanistan will grind on - senselessly, aimlessly, tragically.

Mr. Biden has announced that “many troops” will be “leaving” Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. The administration already has, in essence, waved the white flag of surrender. The United States will leave Afghanistan in defeat - humiliated on the world stage as a paper tiger, a feckless and self-indulgent nation unable to carry the burden of global leadership. This will represent a historic victory for the forces of Islamic fascism; radical Islam will have brought the American giant to its knees - and in the very place, Afghanistan, where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were imagined and planned. It will signify the death of American pre-eminence.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington think tank. He is the daily host of “The Kuhner Show” on WTNT 570-AM (www.talk570.com) from 5 to 7 p.m.

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