Has the Obama administration finally settled on whether the US should wage a counterinsurgency or a counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan? If you read this piece at The New York Times, administration officials are saying it’s the latter, despite President Obama’s settling on the former last December. Is the US going to begin pulling out of Afghanistan in 2011, or is the withdrawal of forces going to be conditions-based? That all seems to depend on which day you hear from President Obama or Vice President Biden. Meanwhile, according to Secretary of Defense Gates, the withdrawal will be small and conditions-based, and the US is committed to the long haul.
These conflicting statements represent merely a small and recent sampling of the confusing messages on Afghan tactics and strategy that have been emanating from Washington over the past several years (including under the Bush administration). The problem stems from the fact that the US does not have a coherent strategy to deal with Afghanistan and the wider Long War. For an excellent take on this, go to Winds of Change and read Why We’re Just Flatly Screwed in Afghanistan. A small taste:
We are consistently winning engagement after engagement [in Afghanistan]. Even Wanat was not a tactical defeat, regardless of the cost. But is there anyone who can confidently say that we are on a path to victory? Bueller? No one?
The reason is simple; we don’t know what victory looks like. We don’t have a political-strategic context for the war we’re in, other than killing the people who shoot at us and who intermittently murder their countrymen.
That’s my core point. We have no strategic objective. That’s the basic failure that Obama inherited from Bush – who also failed to build a strategic justification for the war. What are we doing here? What will winning look like? We have never set out a simple and clear “this is what we’re going to do and why” so that the generals – who are supposed to figure out the How – could do their jobs.
Instead we treated Iraq and Afghanistan – and the smaller engagements and the security measures we’re taking domestically – as if they were unique responses to individual situations, rather than part of a global strategy. What, simply put, is the militarily obtainable Objective of these wars?
As the author notes, there isn’t just a problem with Afghanistan, there is a lack of an overall strategic framework to deal with this greater problem. Two weeks ago I spoke on a panel at a conference held by the National Counterterrorism Center. The topic was ’emerging threats.’ I was able to identify a few (nothing earth-shattering to readers here), but what I focused on was the problems we’ve yet to address from the beginning: How do we define the enemy, and how do we mobilize and educate the American public to keep them in the necessary fight in what will sadly be a multi-generational conflict?
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