Last March, President Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, based on what the military calls COIN: counter-insurgency. This basically consists of protecting the local population from Taliban atrocities to induce them to trust and support the government. At the time of the announcement there was much debate among the military on whether COIN was a viable strategy for Afghanistan; but it should have been clear from the very start that this strategy would have entailed the deployment of tens of thousands additional troops. Back in May, Obama also decided to substitute the commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General MacKiernan with General Stanley McChrystal, a man with a long experience credited for hunting down top Al-Qaeda commander Al-Zarkawi in Iraq.
A few weeks ago a 66-page document by General McChrystal, supposedly classified, was leaked to the press and published by the Washington Post. In the document, General] McChrystal presented a grim assessment of the war: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." Moreover McChrystal set forth an estimation of the resources needed to carry out the strategy the President had advanced. His conclusions included 45,000 additional troops to cover the whole country, plus an expanded, better organized, and costly effort to carry out the development projects that are a vital part of COIN strategy. If an inferior number of troops were sent, areas of the country would remain unprotected.
The publication of McChrystal’s report seems to have caught the Obama Administration off balance. Aides said the President intended to re-evaluate whether the strategy he had devised in March was still the best approach and whether it could work with the extra troops General McChrystal was requesting. However, the very fact that a review is taking place, suggests that the president is having second thoughts about how deeply he is willing to engage in the problematic eight-year conflict that is not going well.
Although Obama has often affirmed that the Afghan war is a “war of necessity” and has claimed that a stable Afghanistan is central to the security of the United States, many, including the US allies, fear that there might be a scaling down in the effort to win the war. These rumours forced on the defensive both the White House and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who felt obliged to publicly reiterate the administration’s long-term commitment.
Among the alternatives submitted to the president’s attention, is VP Biden’s proposal to revise the entire strategy. Instead of protecting the local population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, mainly in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics. This option also entails a reduction in the number of foreign troops. Training of Afghan troops would have to be accelerated and emphasis should be shifted to Pakistan. Mr. Biden considers Pakistan to be the main source of concern and he is critical of the present American policy that allows for only $1 spent in Pakistan for every $30 spent in Afghanistan.
Whatever strategy will be chosen, the fact is that at this moment, a nation that is supposed to lead the world is showing signs of uncertainty and indecisiveness. As Newsweek wrote last week: “Obama finds himself confronting a collision between rhetoric and reality.” Rhetoric is a useful tool on an election campaign, especially when the slogans are catchy, but once in office, a decision-maker must come down to the nitty-gritty of this earthly world. With Obama, we have witnessed all too often that he often soars up to Plato’s world of ideas, taking stands based on his ideological values, then being forced to change path. This is particularly true in his foreign policy; it is what has happened with Iraq and is now taking place with Afghanistan. A wavering American policy is dangerous for the world: it spreads disarray in allies and feeds the terrorists’ propaganda.
In his last audio address to the Europeans, Osama bin Laden said: “It won't be long until the dust of war clears in Afghanistan, at which point you won't find a trace of any American, because they will have gone away far beyond the Atlantic, Allah permitting, and just us and you will remain, for the oppressed to retaliate against his oppressor.” Some might argue that this is merely jihadist delirium, but there are millions of people throughout the world who are ready to believe these kind of oracles.
We should acknowledge that America at the moment does not have the kind of leadership that is needed. As one columnist put it: “It is amateur hour at the White House now.”