Rethinking Afghanistan, Petraeus and America’s longest war

Ed Ross Contributor
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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.

Sooner, rather than later, President Obama must state publicly that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will be “conditions based.” The July 2011 date for the U.S. to begin the withdrawal is artificial, counterproductive, and self defeating. The Afghan government will not be capable of withstanding an onslaught of the Taliban without U.S. assistance for several more years. The Afghan people will not rally to it if they believe the U.S. will soon abandon them and leave them to the mercy of the Taliban. The best way to waste the nine years of blood and treasure we already have invested in Afghanistan is to leave too soon.

The key to drawing down U.S. forces in the years ahead is not simply the establishment of a strong central Afghan government in Kabul and training an Afghan National Army to take over U.S. missions. It’s finding incentives for tribal and factional leaders in Afghanistan to turn away from the Islamist Jihadists and opium production to cooperation and coalition building with each other and the central government.

To do that, we must also surge the so called “soft power” aspects of our Afghanistan involvement and sustain them. That means more experts from the State, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce and other Departments to work with Afghan people. Recently discovered mineral resources must replace opium as the staple of the Afghan economy. Political discourse must replace the AK-47 as the means for resolving differences. This will take years, not months.

It also requires appointing a U.S. ambassador with the experience and expertise to guide that effort. Whatever the truth about the McChrystal-Eikenberry relationship, it makes no sense to have appointed a retired lieutenant general who previously commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan as the ambassador to that country. Conflicts were inevitable. There is an ample supply of highly-skilled and experienced career Foreign Service Officers who can compliment Gen. Petraeus, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker—who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, and Pakistan—did in Iraq.

Finally, the U.S. must engage the Government of Pakistan, its armed forces, and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate to sustain a war on Islamist-Jihadist and Taliban factions in North Waziristan until they are subdued or destroyed. There can be no victory in Afghanistan without victory in Pakistan.

The bottom line is that the political, economic, and military war in Afghanistan is winnable. We are not the Soviets, and Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But we are only half way to victory. While there is a high cost to the war in U.S. lives and in dollars, they are small in comparison to the costs we will pay if we should fail to finish the job. Three times as many people died on 9/11 than have died in nine years of combat in Afghanistan.

Gen. David Petraeus is the best all-around general we have. He’s proven himself on the battlefield, in the international arena, and in the corridors of Washington, D.C. All he requires to win in Afghanistan are the military and soft-power resources necessary to do the job, the cooperation of the right U.S. ambassador, the support of the American people and their elected representatives, and time. We owe that much to him, to those who have given their lives on the battlefield, and to ourselves.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.