Do We Have the Will to Win?

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2009

Last night, President Obama announced his decision concerning U.S. policy and strategy in Afghanistan. It was a mixed message—and that does not bode well for those who believe we must prevail on this critical battlefield.

On the positive side, Obama announced that he was authorizing the deployment of some 30,000 additional U.S. troops and requesting another 5,000 or so troops from our NATO allies. This would be a viable force if the additional troops were properly employed.

But as was the case with the “surge” in Iraq, it is not just the number of troops deployed that matters, but also what they are doing. Herein lies the problem.

The President was right to reject the strategy advocated by Vice President Biden, which would have relied solely on strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles and special operations troops to target Al Qaeda—while ceding control of much of the Afghan population to the Taliban. Yet his embrace of the sort of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy necessary to prevail seems tenuous.

While Obama indicated that many of the additional troops will be deployed to a number of population centers where the Taliban are strongest, he made clear that a primary mission of the new troops would be to help train the Afghan army and police.

An effective Afghan government and a competent Afghan military and police are necessary goals. But they will not be achieved without a full-fledged counterinsurgency that improves the security of the population. Based on the strategy outlined last night, counterinsurgency will take a backseat to training, a mistake we made in Iraq before the surge.

And whatever positive impact the troop surge may have is likely to be undermined by the President’s embrace of the hoary concept of an “exit strategy” as a central element of our Afghan policy. While everyone wants the troops to come home, it is important that they return under the right circumstances, which means at a minimum ensuring the creation of a stable government capable of preventing Al Qaeda safe havens.

A strategy that focuses on how the force will exit fails to consider how military success will be translated into political success. And a focus on extricating ourselves from a conflict rather than on achieving success—also known as victory—signals to an adversary that if he ratchets up his resistance, we will exit more quickly.

A premature exit from Afghanistan would be tantamount to defeat. Defeat will likely bring a return to the chaos that engendered 9/11 as the Taliban and Al Qaeda fill the power vacuum. Those who argue that we should focus on Pakistan ignore the fact that a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would likely further destabilize Pakistan, strengthening extremist forces in the region and increasing the likelihood of war between Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed states.

So how should we proceed? Successful counterinsurgency operations are based on certain well-established principles. Perhaps the most important of these is to demonstrate a will to win. Unfortunately, Obama’s delay in making a decision regarding McChrystal’s troop request, as well as his invocation of a time line for U.S. disengagement, may well cause our adversaries to call this will into question.

Second is a laserlike focus on improving the security of the population. Once security is established, people feel safe enough to provide the intelligence necessary to target insurgents. Security also enables the other conditions necessary to establish a functioning government.

At a news conference last month, Obama said he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan. His speech last night calls a full commitment to this end into question.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook center and a professor at the Naval War College. He is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.