Today’s firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our top commander in Afghanistan, dealt only with a symptom of the disease eating away at our Afghan strategy, and at the risk of perhaps worsening the condition. The general’s disdain for his civilian leaders, expressed to a magazine and which led to his dismissal, stems from systemic disarray at the heart of President Obama’s war policy. This shambles cannot be blamed on a wayward general; the buck stops firmly where it should, at the Oval Office.
Naming the very able Gen. David Petraeus to replace Gen. McChrystal may help heal this sad state of affairs, and we hope it does. But the drama behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s firing masks a far greater and troubling issue: Is the Obama administration fully committed to victory in Afghanistan? Whatever one may say about Gen. McChrystal’s behavior, the larger and more important question is why President Obama tolerates fundamental disagreements among his team on how and even whether to win the war in Afghanistan.
Clearly our Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, is not fully on board with Gen. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. And neither is Vice President Joe Biden, who also seems to be at odds with Obama’s own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, on the meaning of the Afghanistan withdrawal timeline.
All of this spells chaos in the President’s strategy. Tragically, President Obama split the difference between his warring advisers when he chose a “mini” surge of troops, and one conditioned on a timeline for withdrawal. The timeline raised suspicions about the depth of the President’s commitment to victory. The backbiting among his advisers sowed confusion and contradictory strategies that are undermining the effectiveness of the war effort.
This confusion is the President’s fault—not General McChrystal’s—and if the strategy in Afghanistan fails as a result, the responsibility will be Obama’s, not the general’s.
And let’s make something completely clear: the stakes are high. A defeat such as this would be a tremendous tragedy for our nation. The sacrifice of our men and women in uniform have would have been in vain. And the financial and geopolitical investments this nation made in establishing a stable regime capable of keeping out terrorists would be deemed a complete waste.
What is even worse, defeat will inevitably return to power a Taliban regime that will make Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists, just as it was prior to the attacks of September 11. We neglected Afghanistan in the 1990s and paid dearly for it in lives in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Winning in Afghanistan is directly related to preventing another “9/11,” and it truly is the central front in the war on terrorists.
Winning in Afghanistan means ensuring a stable nation that can govern and defend itself, and where the Taliban and other terrorists cannot thrive, continuing to pose a threat to the United States. To achieve victory — a word the President has admitted being averse to — he needs to get away from inflexible artificial timelines that are divorced from conditions on the ground.
The sad thing is that we have been here before, and the outcome was just as tragic and dangerous then as it could be today. There was war weariness at the end of the Vietnam War. Forgetting why were fighting there in the first place, we deluded ourselves into thinking that a loss in Vietnam could be tolerated. The false peace agreement between the United States and North Vietnam dissolved as soon as it became clear that the U.S. government and Congress would not even lift a finger to aid its old ally in South Vietnam.
This subsequent loss was not merely a humiliation for the nation — one that resulted in the state of U.S. armed forces falling to a nadir that is embarrassing to this day. It also unleashed genocide in Cambodia and untold suffering in Vietnam.
Not only that, it signaled America’s weakness and lack of resolve. Taking its measure of the new paper American tiger, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and other communist movements in South America spun themselves up to challenge what they believed to be a declining power.
We don’t need Afghanistan to become our next Vietnam. History never repeats itself exactly, and, yes, there are differences both in circumstances and even outcomes. But if we fail in Afghanistan, this nation will pay a terrible price. We will not only see the threat of terrorism to our shores grow, but could even see the regime in nuclear-armed Pakistan fall either into terrorist hands or a military in league with them.
And that is a danger far, far greater than what we now face on the battlefields of Afghanistan.