According to reports over the past few days, the Obama Administration is thinking about rolling out a new strategy for Afghanistan, one that will require only a relatively modest increase in U.S. troops. The White House has discovered that our fight is not with the Taliban or the other insurgent groups in Afghanistan, it is with Al Qaeda. This reminds me of the old joke about the three professors in the life boat with only a can of beans as food. The first two professors, a physicist and an engineer, try to apply the laws of physics and the principles of mechanics to open the can but are unsuccessful. Finally the economics professor proposes a solution. “Assume a can opener,” he declares.
The administration is going to reinvent the war in Afghanistan, assume away one adversary, the Taliban, and minimize the capability of the other, Al Qaeda. If possible, go even further and rewrite history in order to demonstrate that the Taliban and Al Qaeda aren’t really that close and have different objectives.
Understand that this is not a winning strategy. It is not even clear that it is one that can avoid defeat. At best, it is one that will condemn Afghanistan to civil war for the foreseeable future and a continuing American/NATO presence. At worst, it will embolden both our adversaries, thereby making it harder to hold on in Afghanistan, prosecute the campaign against Al Qaeda or keep Pakistan from slipping into chaos. Moreover, it is a little hard for this administration to advocate a strategy of engaging in a global conflict against violent extremists – their version of the Long War advocated by the previous administration – when they admit a failure to defeat our current adversary.
It is ironic that at a time when planning in the Pentagon is focused largely on winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the term they use is “prevail” – the White House is about to tell them that just holding on is good enough. Moreover, the force sizing construct being developed for the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review contains a big slice of forces for what they are calling an “opposed, large scale stability operation.” If we are not going to prevail in our current conflicts and we don’t want to do large scale complex stability operations, then we do not have to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps as Secretary Gates has proposed. Instead, we can invest in a smaller, but more technologically advanced military for fighting real wars.
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