The Magazine

No Substitute for Victory

Don't abandon Afghanistan.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Can the United States win the war in Afghanistan? The antiwar left has long held the war is unwinnable. Now some conservatives are arguing that President Obama's weakness and indecision forecast American failure--and that, if we're going to fail, we should just get out now.

We would be the last to defend Obama's indefensible dithering. But the war in Afghanistan remains both winnable and worth winning--even with Obama as president. And no form of withdrawal or defeat is consistent with safeguarding key American interests in a volatile and dangerous region of the world.

President Obama's apparent reluctance to pursue the fight does not inspire confidence. But he did send General Stanley McChrystal to take command, along with 21,000 additional troops. Despite efforts by political operatives around the president to push him toward withdrawal now, the president may yet do the right thing--soon, please!--and provide General McChrystal with the forces he needs to pursue decisive operations in 2010. And the president might put real effort into explaining his decision and the war's importance to the American people. In any case, to the extent the administration doesn't seem sufficiently stalwart or willing to provide those in the field the resources they need, a loyal opposition should press the administration to do the right thing, rather than relieving it of its responsibilities by preemptively deciding it won't.

Some Republicans are understandably dismayed at the prospect of supporting a war they worry this president is incapable of prosecuting with sufficient vigor or conviction. They argue that keeping faith with the troops requires rejecting any halfhearted approach. They are right that Americans who wish to support our troops in the field should not accept policies that deprive them of the means to win. But a turn by Republicans to rhetorical opposition to the war would only absolve the Obama administration of its Afghan duty. The better course is to push the administration to take responsibility for the outcome in Afghanistan by continuing to support a fully resourced war effort, while criticizing and opposing any decisions that undermine the troops' chance of success.

After all, as Republicans pointed out on more than one occasion during the Iraq surge debate, it's not really possible to support the troops while opposing the war they are fighting. The troops will not be cheered by a collapse of political support for their effort at home, as they will not be helped by declarations that they are on a fool's errand. Furthermore, a withdrawal of Republican support for the war would allow the administration to claim that a collapse of bipartisan support at home compelled the president's acceding to defeat. But if it turns out that the president is ultimately unwilling to commit to succeeding in Afghanistan, he must be held accountable for that decision

And we need not accede to defeat. The challenges, both military and political, on the ground are great, but they are not greater than those we faced and overcame in Iraq. The U.S. military has become the best counterinsurgency force in history and has only just started to bring its capabilities to bear in Afghanistan. General McChrystal is an outstanding and battle-tested commander with a creative staff and extremely talented subordinates. And he is working for the architect of the Iraq surge, General David Petraeus.

The political team, on the other hand, is weak. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have been ineffective and even counterproductive. The Obama administration appears to have recognized this, recently relegating Holbrooke to a diminished role and assigning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the responsibility of formulating policy and working directly with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. It is a sign of seriousness.

The president's indecision and delay have increased the challenges we face in Afghanistan. But it remains unnecessary and unwise to accept defeat. A model for Republicans is the behavior of Senator John McCain from 2003 to 2007. McCain consistently questioned, challenged, and criticized President Bush's strategy and tactics in Iraq, but he never wavered in his determination to do everything possible to succeed there. Both his steadfast opposition and his steadfast support for the mission were essential in making possible the transformation of strategy that led to success in Iraq. Success in Afghanistan also depends on sound strategy and sufficient resources, which in turn are more likely if Republicans remain unyielding both in opposition to misguided attempts to fight the war on the cheap and in support of a strategy that will lead to victory.

--William Kristol & Frederick W. Kagan