A Winnable War
With a new commander and a renewed commitment from the commander in chief, we will make military progress in Afghanistan.
Success in Afghanistan is possible. The policy that President Obama announced in December and firmly reiterated last week is sound. So is the strategy that General Stanley McChrystal devised last summer and has been implementing this year. There have been setbacks and disappointments during this campaign, and adjustments will likely be necessary. These are inescapable in war. Success is not by any means inevitable. Enemies adapt and spoilers spoil. But both panic and despair are premature. The coalition has made significant military progress against the Taliban, and will make more progress as the last surge forces arrive in August. Although military progress is insufficient by itself to resolve the conflict, it is a vital precondition. As the New York Times editors recently noted, “Until the insurgents are genuinely bloodied, they will keep insisting on a full restoration of their repressive power.” General David Petraeus knows how to bloody insurgents—and he also knows how to support and encourage political development and conflict resolution. He takes over the mission with the renewed support of the White House.
Neither the recent setbacks nor the manner of McChrystal’s departure should be allowed to obscure the enormous progress he has made in setting conditions for successful campaigns over the next two years. The internal, structural changes he made have revolutionized the ability of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to conduct counterinsurgency operations. He oversaw the establishment of a three-star NATO training command that has accelerated both the expansion and the qualitative improvement of the Afghan National Security Forces in less than a year. He introduced a program of partnering ISAF units and headquarters with Afghan forces that had worked wonders in Iraq—and he improved on it. He oversaw the introduction of a three-star operational headquarters to develop and coordinate countrywide campaign plans. He has managed the massive planning and logistical burden of receiving the influx of surge forces and putting them immediately to use in a country with little infrastructure.
While undertaking these enormous tasks of internal reorganization, he has also taken the fight to the enemy. The controversies about his restrictions on the operations of Special Forces and rules of engagement that limit the use of destructive force in inhabited areas have obscured the fact that both Special Forces and conventional forces have been fighting harder than ever before and disrupting and seriously damaging enemy networks and strongholds. Targeted operations against Taliban networks have increased significantly during McChrystal’s tenure, and the Taliban’s ability to operate comfortably in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced. ISAF forces have killed, captured, or driven off numerous Taliban shadow governors and military commanders. They have pushed into areas the Taliban had controlled and eliminated safe-havens.
The story of Marjah is particularly illustrative. Before this year, Marjah was a Taliban sanctuary, command-and-control node, and staging area. Taliban fighters based there had been able to support operations against ISAF and coalition forces throughout Helmand Province. Lasting progress in Helmand was simply not possible without clearing Marjah. McChrystal cleared it. The Taliban naturally are trying to regain control of it. ISAF and the ANSF are trying to prevent them.
The attempt to import “governance” rapidly into the area is faltering, which is not surprising considering the haste with which the operation was conducted (driven at least partly by the perceived pressure of the president’s July 2011 timeline). The attempt was also ill-conceived. Governance plans for Marjah emphasized extending the influence of the central government to an area that supported insurgents precisely because it saw the central government as threatening and predatory. Although ISAF persuaded President Hamid Karzai to remove the most notorious malign actor in the area from power, Karzai allowed him to remain in the background, stoking fears among the people that he would inevitably return. The incapacity of the Afghan government to deliver either justice or basic services to its people naturally led to disappointment as well, partly because ISAF’s own rhetoric had raised expectations to unrealistic levels.