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Should Obama Order a 'Surge' for Afghanistan?

Gabriel Schoenfeld & Brian Katulis

What should the U.S. military objective and exit strategy be? Gabriel Schoenfeld and Brian Katulis debate: What should the military objective in Afghanistan be? And the exit strategy?

Give Gen. McChrystal the ‘Surge’ he Needs

Point: Gabriel Schoenfeld

Brian, let’s assume for the sake of discussion that President Obama summons the nerve to go forward with some version of the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. I’m not a military expert, but I am noticing a great deal of pessimism among some who claim to be such experts about the feasibility of what McChrystal wants to do.

It is striking that many of these same experts were also deeply pessimistic that the “surge” in Iraq could reverse that country’s descent into fratricide. The remarkable progress made in quelling civil war there should be a powerful reminder that, with the right strategy, seemingly intractable military problems can be turned around.

Many critics of an Afghan “surge” have pointed to the stark geographical and demographic differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. But at the end of the day, the most important difference between the two conflicts might well be an external factor: namely, the steadfastness of American leadership.

George W. Bush made a number of appalling mistakes in the conduct of the Iraq war. The most costly was to permit the insurgency to progress from a scratch to gangrene. But whatever his faults, he did in the end act decisively to staunch the necrosis. He fired his generals, brought in a new team and turned things around to a degree deemed impossible by many of those now expressing doubts about Afghanistan. He will be remembered not only for his failings but also for the singular achievement of having left office with Saddam Hussein lying in a grave and Iraq on a plausible road to stable self-government.

Obama seems to be following an entirely different trajectory. As a candidate, he was pressing for an Afghanistan surge from the start. Coming into office, he acted swiftly to bring in a remarkably fit military team for waging counterinsurgency warfare. But as I noted in our exchange Wednesday, just as he came to a crucial fork in the road, he has chosen to dither and vacillate.

Let’s hope this phase does not last long, for we have been down the path of indecision and inaction before. For an entire decade in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, the United States tolerated Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, just as it tolerated the depredations of the Taliban itself. In March 2001, the world watched in horror as the Taliban dynamited the towering stone Buddhas in the central province of Bamiyan that had stood for 1,500 years. A few months later, guests of the Taliban visited even greater destruction on Washington and New York.

We must not forget the cost of our passivity in the 1990s. We are facing enemies of civilization — ours and Afghanistan’s — who must be annihilated as a political and military force. Proposals such as the one put forward by the conservative columnist George Will, to fight the Taliban “from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units,” are pipe dreams. Such an approach, endorsed already by some liberals, would permit the Taliban to storm the gates of Kabul within months.

I have yet to see a plausible strategy, other than the one adumbrated by McChrystal, that will prevent the return of the Taliban to power and put Afghanistan on the road to stability and self-government. If you have an alternative approach, Brian, I’d be eager to hear what it is. As for an “exit strategy,” employing our national resources to inflict a crushing defeat on the Taliban is the only way out of Afghanistan we should be talking about.

Enough with the Bush-era Rhetoric

Counterpoint: Brian Katulis

Well, Gabe, I have to say that I’m underwhelmed. Instead of giving clear answers to the questions you pose, you mostly engage in cheerleading, so much so that I’ve arranged to have a set of pompoms delivered to your office tomorrow morning.

Using phrases such as whether the president “summons the nerve to go forward” to discuss the policy choices the United States faces in Afghanistan is emblematic of the empty sloganeering that got us into this mess. In addition, characterizing a president who has sent more troops this year and whose secretary of Defense (a Republican holdover) just this week ordered several thousand more troops to Afghanistan as choosing to “dither and vacillate” is not only out of touch, it does a disservice to those who are serving our country in Afghanistan.

There’s actually something quaint in reading your responses, and it reminds me of a dusty old curled-up calendar from 2002 I recently found in the corner of my basement. The language brings me back to a time when we had a president who didn’t think through all of his options, took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. If I find any comfort, your approach has become largely irrelevant, defeated in last year’s election and pushed to the sidelines as we’ve developed a more pragmatic and practical approach to keeping Americans safe.

Bush’s most costly mistake in Iraq wasn’t “to permit the insurgency to progress from a scratch to gangrene”; it was going to Iraq in the first place. The opportunity costs of leaving the mission unaccomplished in Afghanistan was the worst mistake. But that’s history, so let me answer today’s two questions.

The central military objective in Afghanistan must support the president’s strategic objective, which again is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Militarily, this means conducting the sorts of strikes against the Taliban forces that have increased under the Obama administration, continuing to pressure the Taliban and Al Qaeda networks with targeted strikes in Pakistan (an underused tool by a skittish Bush administration aligned with an ineffective regime in Pakistan) and developing the capacity of Afghan partners to take on the fight, something McChrystal highlights in his report. All of this work continues and will continue under the Obama administration. The real debate is how to strike the right balance with our resources in light of other contingencies we face, including continuing to clean up the mess made by the Bush administration in Iraq.

The exit strategy depends on making progress on the strategic goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here we need a serious evaluation of where the effort stands and clear metrics to measure progress. More than eight years after the 9/11 attack, our country still lacks a clear analytical framework for objectively measuring progress in the broader global fight against terror networks. Developing such a framework will help us avoid the pep-rally debates on national security too common in our country.

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