The Magazine

Support the President

Beyond the squabbling and behind the mission.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Additional NATO forces arriving in Afghanistan now know that they are going to fight a counterinsurgency war. General McChrystal's assessment noted that the failings of the Afghan government are as much of a challenge as the enemy's capabilities. The commanders are well aware that they must do more than "connect the government with the people" (the previous mantra), but must also reform and restrain the government while strengthening it. The American aid community and parts of the international aid community are also changing their approaches to recognize that defeating the insurgency and providing security are the pre-requisites to development and anti-poverty efforts.

General McChrystal has in addition improved the effectiveness of the forces he has under his command today. He pulled U.S. troops out of isolated and remote outposts where they were in some cases more targets for the enemy than components of a coherent offensive strategy. He has also taken steps to reduce Afghan civilian casualties.

Perhaps most important, he has transformed the way allied forces work to build the capacity of Afghan Security Forces, importing critical lessons from our experience in Iraq. In addition to mentoring and advising Afghan units with small numbers of embedded trainers, General McChrystal has ordered American combat units to partner with their Afghan counterparts. They plan and conduct operations together as units, share intelligence, and fight together. As we saw in Iraq, a partnership at all levels is the fastest and most effective way to build indigenous combat forces, and it will be the model for U.S. and allied training efforts in Afghanistan from now on.

All of these changes create the conditions in which the deployment of additional American combat forces may be able to achieve decisive results over the next 18 months. This would be even easier if our civilian leadership in the country integrated their efforts with the military's as was done in Iraq in 2007. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team were almost as crucial to our success in Iraq as General David Petraeus. And the fact that Crocker and Petraeus worked hand-in-glove was of inestimable value. President Obama owes it to our troops--and to the American people--to try to replicate that happy conjunction of civilian and military effort in Afghanistan.

Nothing is certain in war, and the enemy always gets a vote, but we can be confident that the strategy and forces that will be in place in Afghanistan early next year have a good chance of success. And success will mean more than merely reversing the Taliban's momentum. Taken together with the recent achievements of the Pakistani military against that country's separate but related Taliban movements, success in Afghanistan could mark a turning point in the struggle against Islamism in South Asia. In this way, our efforts over the next couple of years in Afghanistan are not simply the assumption of a distressing duty; they are the seizing of an important opportunity in the global struggle in which we're engaged.

National security has been a polarizing issue in American politics for a long time. Democrats--including, unfortunately, many in the Obama administration--still want to blame the Bush administration for all our woes. Republicans can't resist focusing on the flaws in the president's plan and annoying aspects of his West Point speech. Everyone wants to relitigate past fights. In the case of Afghanistan--a war both parties have agreed is vital to our national interest, with tens of thousands of American soldiers already on the line and more on the way--we should get beyond the squabbling.

Republicans will have the opportunity--and the responsibility--to criticize this administration's policies toward Iran, China, and Russia; its defense budgets; and its detainee policies, to say nothing of its domestic policy initiatives. Democrats will respond. But the president's announcement of a sound and feasible strategy in Afghanistan gives us a chance to show to ourselves and the world that politics really can stop at the water's edge when the nation's safety is at stake and our troops are fighting on our behalf.

So we say: Support the troops. Support the mission. Support the president.

--Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol