Get serious about Afghanistan or get out

Keith Koffler Editor, White House Dossier
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“The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road to either safety or ruin.”—Sun Tzu from “The Art of War.”

Does anybody believe President Obama’s approach to the war in Afghanistan reflects this timeless maxim?

Mr. President, judging from your actions and behavior, you do not appear to understand the gravity of the endeavor in Afghanistan. And your approach will lead to defeat on the battlefield and, as it did for Lyndon Johnson before you, the ruin of a presidency devoted to grand plans on the home front but facing the crushingly inconvenient fact that it is fighting a war.

You seem a reluctant warrior, if a warrior at all, and you appear uncommitted to victory, or even your truncated definition of it. Change this, or go down as the man who lost Afghanistan. Not former President George W. Bush. You. Bush will go down as the man who succeeded in Iraq.

By projecting weakness and inattention, you give our enemies hope and reason to continue.

Mr. President, start acting serious about this war, or get us the hell out of it.

Let’s start with the July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing. While you say the idea was to put the pressure on Afghan President Karzai to get his act together, I believe it also reflects your profound distaste for the fighting.

Either way, the result is clear. As a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction demonstrates, the Afghans are not going to meet your timeline.

Meanwhile, the mice on the ship are scurrying to make arrangements before the vessel goes down. Karzai is flailing about, biting the U.S. hand that feeds him and reaching out for deals with enemies he thinks will be manning his firing squad once the U.S. turns tail like it did in Vietnam and Somalia, or decides it’s time to start ignoring Afghanistan again like it did after the Russians were evicted.

Believing they might not have long to wait before their facing Karzai’s Keystone Kops, the Taliban are fighting with tenacity, making our life misery in Marjah and delaying the planned offensive to take back Kandahar.

Scrap the withdrawal date. Say it was a mistake. Stop all this pathetic parsing where senior, adult aides try to say the withdrawal date is not much of a withdrawal date. What is it, then—a plan to take a dozen or thirteen soldiers out? The world is flummoxed, while in Afghanistan, there is clearly concern you meant what you said about really getting out.

Ironically, the date and the problems it has caused will end up keeping us in Afghanistan even longer, or result in a disgraceful retreat out of the country.

You showed yet more hesitation by providing fewer troops than you commanders wanted. Let’s dispense with the notion you’ve suggested that McChrystal’s disrespectful attitude toward the White House had nothing to do with policy. He wanted 80,000 troops to do the job right and at least a ten year commitment. You gave him 35,000 and said we’ll start leaving in 18 months.

The July 2011 deadline also clearly gives newly appointed Afghan war Commander Gen. Petraeus heartburn. Earlier this month he suggested it was changeable, while today he called it “a process.”

The withdrawal date is only the most obvious sign to the Taliban that you’d rather being doing anything but fighting them. The year you spent pussyfooting with the jackals who run Iran, finally culminating in a sanctions effort your own CIA director says won’t work, is a sure sign to the enemy that you stomach is not for fighting.

Your Cairo speech back on June 4, 2009, to which they surely listened since it was directed at Muslims, was notable for its un-Churchillian prose.

“We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan,” you pleaded. “We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home.”

Now that’s the warrior spirit.

But you have also revealed yourself by your unwillingness to sound the trumpet for Americans, as if the war were some abstract thing. You have only a few times in your 17 months if office addressed the country on Afghanistan in a serious and sustained way. Your State of the Union speech this year, for example, included only a single paragraph in this war.

And how about the battle cry you do issue? “So make no mistake,” you counseled last week as you announced you were cashiering Gen. McChrystal. “We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum.”

What? Break the Taliban’s momentum? So the generals call to the troops is, “Let’s get out there boys and stop their momentum!” What an inspiration.

Our troops are already mercilessly ground down by deployments, with further cuts planned for the Pentagon to help pay—since all federal spending and savings are fungible—for the heaps of new domestic spending you’ve piled on. But the troops are brave and committed and will fight if they have an understandable objective.

Even though you have been clear about it, I wonder how many Americans realize we are not in this war to win it.

Sir, leaders like Napoleon, Churchill and Patton succeeded in battle in part because, frankly, they loved war. It is to your credit that you don’t. But you do have to get your head into it. And to win, you do have to fight relentlessly and without mercy or pity, until the job is done. Like Lincoln did.

Keith Koffler, who covered the White House as a reporter for CongressDaily and Roll Call, is editor of the blog White House Dossier.