Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation following his strategic blunder—granting an interview to Rolling Stone magazine—comes two weeks after the war in Afghanistan became America’s longest war, exceeding the 104 months of the Vietnam War. These two events, along with President Obama selecting Gen. David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal, should give us pause to rethink U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
I don’t mean that we should find an “exit strategy” that will extract us from Afghanistan at the earliest possible time. On the contrary, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made the decisions on Afghanistan they made because they understood the enormous stakes. Rethinking the war shouldn’t be about getting out but about victory and what it will take to achieve it.
The war in Afghanistan began as retaliation for 9/11. In the process of fighting it, however, we came to understand that Afghanistan was more than just a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Coupled with the Islamist-Jihadist forces inside Pakistan it is one half of the beating heart, if not the brain, of the Islamist-Jihadist threat. As long as that heart beats strongly we are not safe. It is a threat to the Government of Pakistan. And should the Islamist-Jihadists ever gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons it would destabilize the world and paint a nuclear-terrorist’s bull’s eye on every American city.
The criticism that we took our eyes off Afghanistan while we struggled to win the controversial war in Iraq is true. We under resourced our efforts, and the results were predictable. But that’s water under the bridge. Now, as with Iraq, a “surge” is necessary to recapture lost ground and put us in a position to achieve victory. The surge—the bulk of the 30,000 troops Obama authorized are just now arriving in country—will, no doubt, succeed in the short-run. It is not, however, the key to victory over the long term.
What the McChrystal affair has done, as Peggy Noonan writing in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, is provide the U.S. the opportunity to focus on Afghanistan at this critical time. Without the interview in Rolling Stone and McChrystal’s resignation President Obama and the country might otherwise have remained focused on the oil spill in the Gulf, the hobbled economy, and illegal immigration. We likely would have continued inexorably moving toward July 2011, when President Obama has declared we would begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, without a reexamination of U.S. strategy.
Now that President Obama and the country are reexamining it, he can’t avoid the fact that setting the July 2011 date was a mistake. He must ensure that all departments of government adequately resource their contingents in Afghanistan. He must address the internal differences between Gen. McChrystal, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke highlighted in the Rolling Stone article. And he must ensure the Pakistanis are doing what’s necessary.