Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In war, and particularly in an Afghanistan counterinsurgency effort, there are always three sides to the coin: the good, the bad and the ugly. This is especially true in President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, finally announced to the American public Tuesday from a West Point backdrop.

The prescribed influx of much-needed American warriors onto the battlefield is clearly and rightly the good. And the good can withstand the bad, a Taliban enemy in the absence of reliable partners in the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

But the glimmering light of the good will surely be eclipsed by the ugly, an incoherence of strategy beneath the surface sheen of a surge. The devil is always in the details.

Sending additional troops, whether decided upon from intellectual deliberation or from political calculation, is the right call. The details of their usage, the never-ending questions of “exit strategy” and the general unwillingness to commit to victory is wholly unacceptable.

As the commander in chief, the president must act with a clarity of mind and mission. In doing so, he sends a message that the American people will do what is necessary, for as long as necessary, to defeat those who would oppress others or hide while plotting additional attacks on innocents in Afghanistan, Pakistan or here in the United States. The necessity in doing so should be clear, as the Afghan people are resistant to American aid due to the questionable commitment we’ve made to them. In this vital aspect, the commander in chief has failed.

For a counterinsurgency effort to succeed, the willing partners aren’t in Kabul or Islamabad, no matter the demands made upon each. Rather, they reside in the villages and towns spread through the provinces of Afghanistan. Winning over the local leaders will strengthen our position and ultimately lead to the Afghan people demanding better governance from Kabul.

This requires - in both word and deed - clear demonstration of presence and resolve, not in intellectual arguments for an exit strategy. There are no exits for the Afghans we seek to defend in parallel with our own security and interests.

White House thinking is evident in carefully managed leaks throughout the months-long process. The latest wave consistently explains the strategy as being centered on this demand for an exit strategy.

The guiding exit strategy is based upon handing control over to Afghan forces. Two things fly in the face of this logic. First is the administration’s recently expressed, inexplicable opposition to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request to double the size of Afghan security forces.

Second, according to yet another managed leak to the New York Times on Monday, is a determination to hand over control of provinces down that road on an undefined timetable that “would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground.” Considering the rabblelike state of the Afghan army and the current initiative of the Taliban enemy, how can conditions on the ground not be the determining factor? What conditions remain other than purely political?

The president has yet to use the word “victory” or even “success” in describing Afghan-theater ambitions. Last week, he offered merely that he intends “to finish the job,” a purposely vague reference to which we have become accustomed. This affords his political allies and adversaries alike to infer their own meaning. It is Mr. Obama once again voting “present.” Don’t for an instant think that this goes unnoticed by the Afghan population. When and where it is needed most, this is not leadership.

And on top of it all, while the commander in chief sells the American public on the numbers of an Afghanistan surge, there is even inconsistency in that. The leaders of NATO nations last week announced an intention to supply an additional 7,000 troops for a surge. Yet these same leaders will descend on London in January to hammer out the final details of a proposed full withdrawal from Afghanistan within a year. This explains why European representatives are so steadfastly “negotiating” with Taliban factions within Afghanistan, even while it is the Taliban who are negotiating from a position of strength.

None of this bodes well for the Afghans, who have no exit. Nor does it bode well for the American war fighters valiantly defending them. Short of major changes to this Afghanistan strategy on the fly, the outcome is predictable.

Taking the long view, the Taliban and al Qaeda must be licking their chops as American leadership, even in announcing a surge strategy, demonstrates more clearly than ever before that it lacks the stomach for the fight. “Ride the storm out,” Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar are surely saying. “The Americans want exit more than they want victory.”

Steve Schippert is a senior fellow at the Center for Threat Awareness, managing editor for, and host of the Steve Schippert Show, a weekly national security podcast at

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