The Magazine

The AWOL Commander

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By GARY SCHMITT
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But, as the graph also shows, it has been largely downhill ever since, with the exception of a not insignificant uptick in favor of the war following Osama bin Laden’s killing in May 2011. However, instead of building on that success, the White House used it as the opening to begin shifting the principal goal of the war from stabilizing Afghanistan to defeating al Qaeda. And with al Qaeda increasingly on its heels, the United States could begin to wind down its combat role in the conflict. Accordingly, in June 2011, the president announced the unexpectedly rapid drawdown of all the surge forces, putting up the straw man that we were not in the business of trying “to make Afghanistan a perfect place” but to ensure it was no longer a safe haven for terrorists. This was to be “the beginning .  .  . of our effort to wind down this war.”

This shift is explained by the fact that, as David Sanger of the New York Times has reported, Obama was never actually on board with McChrystal’s design of an enhanced counterinsurgency. For the troops and their commanders, the surge was part of a larger strategic game plan; for the president, it was a tactical maneuver, allowing him space and time to begin the drawdown and incentivize the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. (In this respect, Obama’s thinking appears eerily similar to President Nixon’s in the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972.)

Sanger’s reporting also helps explain why, outside of his first year in office, the president has not made much of an effort to defend the war in Afghanistan or talk about the surge’s successes. Instead, the president’s rhetoric has focused on “our troops coming home,” with the codicil that, of course, we’ll make the transition “responsibly.” (Again, one can’t help but hear echoes of “Vietnamization” and “peace with honor.”)

But, as with Vietnam, the American public knows in its bones that the president has, in the run up to November’s election, decided to pull the plug on the Afghan war, cutting short the progress that was being made on the ground and leaving America’s returning troops with an uncertain result as their legacy. This, perhaps as much as anything else, explains why some two-thirds now believe the Afghan war has not been worth fighting.

No doubt Americans are war-weary today. But only a year ago, a majority of Americans in a CBS/New York Times poll believed the war was going well or, at least, somewhat well, a poll result very similar to that of a Princeton/Pew survey taken the same month. Moreover, unlike Vietnam, this is not a war with hundreds of thousands of draftees fighting and tens of thousands of troop fatalities.

It’s certainly true that success in putting down an insurgency takes time and patience. But it’s not true that Americans are simply too impatient a people to sustain the effort needed. Americans have engaged in prolonged wars, cold and hot, in the past. What’s key is a sense that success is possible and, in turn, a president willing to make the case that success is not only possible but necessary. Unfortunately, this is not the president we have.

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