Senator John Kerry in his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Monday criticized General McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment for going “too far, too fast,” yet he failed to lay out an alternative strategy for success or to provide a convincing case against implementation of McChrystal’s specific recommendations.
Kerry rightly admitted that a U.S. troop pullout could trigger a civil war in the country and destabilize neighboring Pakistan. He also acknowledged that the costs of failure in Afghanistan are “very real.”
But his plan for moving forward lacks boldness and is unrealistic with regard to the ferocity of the Taliban insurgency. Kerry essentially argued against McChrystal’s recommendation for a significant troop surge on the grounds that the U.S. first needed “critical guarantees of governance and development capacity.” The fact is Afghans need security and protection from the Taliban insurgents before the Afghan authorities are able to deliver governance and development. Such protection will only come if the U.S. and NATO provide sufficient troop levels for the mission.
Now that Afghan President Karzai has agreed to hold a run-off election on November 7th, there is the prospect of resolving the Afghan political crisis sparked by the flawed August 20th election. The green light from Karzai should give the Obama administration the confidence to move forward with General McChrystal’s plan for increasing troop levels and implementing a population-centric counterinsurgency mission.
The ongoing public debate about Afghanistan strategy in Washington has already cost the U.S. credibility with its NATO allies and confused both Afghan and Pakistani partners who believe they must hedge their bets on U.S. commitment to the region, now under serious question.
If U.S. leaders truly seek to “regain the initiative and reverse the Taliban’s momentum,” as Senator Kerry concluded should be the goal, then President Obama must adopt a realistic strategy based on facts on the ground in Afghanistan, rather than the political winds in Washington. And he must do it sooner rather than later.