NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivered an impressive speech on Monday at the Atlantic Council, stating plainly that “we must succeed in Afghanistan and I intend to help make that happen.” He went on:
“I have no illusions; none of this will be quick and none of it will be easy. We will need to have patience. We will need more resources. And, unfortunately, we will lose more young soldiers to the terrorist attacks of the Taliban. But I fully agree with President Obama when he says that this is not a war of choice, but of necessity. It is obvious that if we do not succeed, Afghanistan will again be a terrorist camp; Pakistan, nuclear-armed Pakistan, will be severely destabilized; extremism will spread fast into Central Asia and then to Europe. That is simply the reality.”
And while the remarks Rasmussen made yesterday following a meeting with President Obama at the White House were markedly less decisive–he echoed the administration’s now familiar “strategy first, then resources” refrain–the Secretary General closed with an assurance: “Don’t make any mistake–the normal discussion on the right approach should not be misinterpreted as lack of resolve.”
Yet with concern mounting over the administration’s apparent dithering on the question of Afghanistan, one can only hope that the alliance’s resolve won’t similarly begin to wane.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Today President Obama, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other senior administration officials will conduct meeting initiating the second major review of Afghanistan–pardon me, “AfPak”–strategy since the administration assumed office. While it is unfortunate to have to revisit the question of basic war aims, and while the need to get on a path toward success in Afghanistan could not be more urgent, the danger is that, once again, we will fail to define the war correctly. This would inevitably mean we will again be confronted by these same frustrations at some future moment.
The al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 were not the opening shots of a war–they remain most important because they marked the day that Americans understood that there was already a war for the future of the greater Middle East well underway. This is what we really care about: the relationship between the “Muslim world” and the rest of us. Will this be a region–strategically, a vitally important one–politically at odds with the planet?
Alas, the searing experience of 9/11 and the resulting obsession with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden still fogs our glasses. Those least able to see a larger picture focus on the leering face of bin Laden and advocate a narrow counterterrorism effort or, in extreme cases, only a law-enforcement approach. As Fred and Kim Kagan have made plain, this is a self-contradiction.
In less than a week’s time, the Obama administration gave in to Tehran’s demands, sawed off the limb that our East European allies had climbed onto on behalf of NATO, and signaled Moscow, Tehran, and North Korea that the United States will not stand up to their bullying tactics. With that in mind, it’s not a good time to be America’s ally, while America’s enemies must be laughing themselves to sleep over outmaneuvering the United States on critical national security issues such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
For a while the administration took a firm position, as endorsed in July by the G-8, that it would give Tehran until the end of September to engage in serious discussions over its nuclear program–or it would get another round of, supposedly, tougher sanctions for defying the world’s condemnation of its pursuit of the ultimate weapon. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refused, stole an election, brutally cracked down on pro-democracy dissidents, conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles, arrested American hikers and jailed American journalists, replaced the hardliners in his security organizations with ultra-hardliners, and then offered to talk about everything except nuclear weapons.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates made news on CNN’s Sunday talkie “State of the Union,” but press coverage seems to have missed the lede–a subtler but larger point. While reporters emphasized Gates’ point that an artificial timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a terrible idea, the secretary was even more compelling in describing the greater strategic effects of anything perceived as a defeat.
“The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States,” Gates admitted. It would be perceived by the extremist Islamic groups as a victory over the U.S., similar to the former Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the country in 1989: The “Taliban and al Qaida, as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al Qaida recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on.”
Gates has been relatively mum while the controversy has built over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment and the requirement for as many as 40,000 additional forces. It would seem that, in conjunction with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, Gates is adding support to McChrystal’s recommendations–also putting himself athwart Vice President Biden, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and those in the administration arguing for a lesser commitment.
Gates is also sending a message to President Obama. In the past, when Gates has called upon Soviet analogies in Afghanistan, it has been to fret that too many U.S. troops would look like an occupation. He seems to have realized that there is a worse Russian precedent.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University, is one the most persistent critics of the “Long War.” He is also one of just a handful of critics who can be labeled “conservative.” His latest foray into the debate was yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post‘s “Outlook” section in which he argues against resourcing Gen. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan and recommends, instead, pulling back, engaging in targeted counterterrorist strikes, beefing up security at home and, more generally, adopting a policy of containment. As with U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, Bacevich says the “U.S. should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay. Such a strategy worked before. It can work again.” “The goal,” he states, “ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout” of the likes of al Qaeda.
To carry out the strategy, Bacevich argues, first, the military should focus on targeting the jihadist leadership for elimination through the use of special operations forces (SOF). He eschews the use of Predator strikes as being too imprecise and leading to civilian casualties and, hence, counterproductive as it generates new hatreds and new jihadists. But Bacevich is only kidding himself if he thinks that SOF strikes: a) are not likely to lead to civilian casualties, as well; b) are far less likely to be employed by risk-averse politicians; c) operationally, are far more difficult to carry out when the terrorists are in deep inland areas such as in Afghanistan or Pakistan; and d) are rarely effective in the absence of close-in intelligence to confirm in real-time the exact location of the jihadist target. All of which argues that Bacevich’s “over-the horizon” counterterrorist strategy is, on its own terms, impractical.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg spoke about the Sino-U.S. relationship yesterday at the Center for a New American Security. The main themes were that all countries, including China, have common interests and common concerns about global threats; that established powers trying to contain emerging ones always fail; and that the new framework for relations with China should be “strategic reassurance.” As far as I can tell, the “strategic reassurance” concept seems to mean the following: we reassure China that we are not containing them while they reassure us about their strategic intentions, including about their increasing military capabilities.
Bill Gertz reported yesterday on new evidence (first reported by the London Sunday Times magazine) regarding A.Q. Khan’s nuclear supplier network. The evidence, a handwritten letter from Khan to his Dutch wife, confirms China’s previous material support for Pakistan’s nuclear program. Wrote Khan:
We put a centrifuge plant at Hanzhong, [China]…The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us 50 kg of enriched uranium, gave us 10 tons of UF6 (natural) and 5 tons of UF6 (3 percent).
UF6, or uranium hexaflouride, is a gas used in the production of highly-enriched, weapons-grade plutonium. American officials have long suspected China of involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear program. But this new evidence, if genuine (and why would Khan fabricate such a story in a letter to his wife?), should be eye-opening.
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One of the reasons that Gen. Stanley McChrystal can argue that victory in Afghanistan is achievable is that he counts on a force forged in the years since 9/11 into a superb instrument for irregular warfare. Indeed, Americans in uniform have done much to rescue American strategists from their mistakes.
Yet we in Washington take the quality of the force too much for granted. We tend either to stand in awe of people in uniform or pity them; rarely do we devote much effort to simply understand them, be it individually or collectively. Tomorrow, CDS will try to rectify that with a conference “Surviving and Thriving in Harm’s Way,” a look at how soldiers are managing the many stresses of repeat deployments to some very cruel wars.
We’ll begin with a presentation from Nate Self (pictured above), a former Army Ranger who led the desperate fight of “Roberts’ Ridge” in March 2002, during Operation Anaconda which swept the last major al Qaeda force out of Afghanistan. Though Self and his men passed a pure test of courage under fire–the fight has passed into Ranger legend and is honored in displays at Ranger Regiment headquarters–he suffered from a severe case of post-combat stress that drove him from the Army. Yet despite the contention of professional PTSD advocates, Self is not only himself recovering from his trauma but now works with other soldiers who suffer from similar problems.
And we will conclude with a presentation from Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, another stoic soldier. In 1991, while serving as a flight surgeon on a search-and-rescue mission to save a downed F-16 pilot, the Blackhawk helicopter carrying Cornum was shot down; many of the crew were killed and she was held as a prisoner of war until the cessation of hostilities. Her subsequent memoir, She Went to War, focused the debate on women’s roles in combat. An M.D. and PhD., Cornum now heads the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a effort to prepare soldiers and their families for the personal challenges they now face.
AEI’s Sally Satel will also moderate a panel assessing and discussing new clinical thinking about PTSD. Many of elements of past PTSD mythology–especially those that comprise the caricature of the “broken veteran” in popular culture–do not withstand rigorous scientific scrutiny.
In sum, this promises to be a conference that digs more deeply in search of the understanding needed to formulate wise personnel policies for the “Long War.” For if we do “break the force”–if we break these people–we cannot win.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
In his new research paper for the NATO Defense College, Patrick Keller, coordinator of foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, carefully considers then deftly picks apart the various arguments that have become common among allied critics of the war in Afghanistan–”NATO’s mission is not in our national interest,” “military means will not lead to peace in Afghanistan,” “the democratization of Afghanistan is illusory,” and so on. As more alliance members edge toward the door in Afghanistan (see here and here, for example), Keller’s paper couldn’t be more timely.