Winning the War in Afghanistan on the Home Front

In his recent speech to the cadets at the US military academy at West Point, President Barack Obama set out a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. He announced both a surge and an exit strategy, starting in mid-2011.

This second aspect has drawn sharp criticism from the Right. Yet those who charge him with placing partisan politics ahead of American security are ignoring the realities, both strategic and domestic, that will determine the war’s final outcome.

It is true that by announcing a date for commencing withdrawal, Obama has increased the chance that the Taliban will wait out the troop surge while expanding their control of the Afghan countryside. It is also true that he may have reinforced doubts about the United States’ commitment in the minds of the Afghan people, who have thus far been hedging their support between the international forces in Afghanistan today and the insurgents they expect to remain in the country tomorrow.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has downplayed the importance of Obama’s nominal exit date, arguing that the matter will be reassessed over the next 18 months and that any drawdown might only involve a very small number of troops initially. Yet the president’s reference to a mid-2011 withdrawal also needs to be taken seriously.

Since 2004, the insurgency in Afghanistan has made steady gains. The war cannot now be won in 18 months, but the administration is hoping that in this period more troops, more money and better strategy will demonstrate, both in Afghanistan and at home, that the war is still winnable.

The commander of U.S. and international forces, General Stanley McChrystal, noted that by the end of 2010 “it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum” and by mid-2011 “it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win”.

In other words, if the United States can slow the insurgency’s momentum in the next 18 months, then it can probably afford to start drawing down its troops in mid-2011; but if it cannot reverse that momentum, it will probably have to start withdrawing them.

In pointing to an exit date, then, Obama is not telling the Taliban, the Afghan government or the Afghan people anything they do not already know.

For this president, at this time, a decision to surge in Afghanistan demonstrates real courage. The war is going badly. The prospects of victory are not obvious. Public opinion has been souring on the conflict, and Obama’s base is firmly against any escalation. Democrats in Congress are worried that it is not winnable. Such is the background against which this Democratic president has now elected to deploy more than 50,000 US troops into a conflict that was starved of resources by his predecessor. He has done so because he believes the stakes are extremely high.

Is there politics in all this? There had better be, or else Obama is not a politician’s shoelace.

Obama needs to align military imperatives with political will. He also needs to solve America’s gargantuan domestic policy problems at the same time that he prosecutes the foreign wars he has inherited.

At West Point, Obama observed that “we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

The immediate reaction to Obama’s speech was a significant jump in support for deploying more forces to Afghanistan, which tends to vindicate his approach. But he knows that the real danger lies along the line, in six or 12 or 18 months’ time, if the results he has been promised do not eventuate.

Obama should embrace the charge that he is giving weight to American politics as well as strategic policy. This reflects a fundamental truth about the nature of this conflict. The Taliban are too few to defeat the US militarily, but they can beat it politically by undermining its will to fight.

To win this war, Obama will need to husband popular support for it on the home front, even as he provides his generals with the forces they need to defeat the insurgents on the battle front.