During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama promised to focus our war efforts on Afghanistan, claiming that was where the real fight lay and that the Bush Administration had made a grave mistake by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein. It was, in essence, the "good war," as opposed to the Republicans' "bad war" in Iraq. We'll ignore the strategic reality right now, which was just about the opposite of the Democrats' claims. Since then, however, Iraq has dramatically improved with al Qaeda being almost annihilated there and a functioning democracy taking root, while Afghanistan seems to be growing worse by the day: the Taliban and al Qaeda are operating from safe havens in Pakistan and their reach is spreading throughout Afghanistan; the Afghan Army is too small for the job; many of our NATO allies are mostly useless, with the exception of the Brits, French, Canadians, Danes, Lithuanians, and a few others; the central government is weak; and its legislators at times seem little better than the Taliban themselves.
Given the foreign weakness President Obama has shown since taking office, one might expect him to be equally feeble facing the challenges posed in Afghanistan. One apparently would be wrong. As Max Boot reports, the President has ordered a change in command there. With these changes, in Boot's opinion, PBO is right on target:
McKiernan, an armored officer, was not able to articulate and impose such a counterinsurgency strategy on his command. McChrystal, a Special Forces officer, is more likely to succeed. He spent an unusually long time (2003-2008) heading the Joint Special Operations Command, which is responsible for "black" counter-terrorism operations using elite units such as Delta Force. His longevity in that difficult job at a critical time after 9/11 was a testament to his effectiveness. He did a particularly impressive job at his forward headquarters in Iraq of integrating intelligence with operations to take down high-value targets such as Abu Musab Zarqawi.
I would not go as far as to claim, as Bob Woodward did in "The War Within," that it was the special operators rather than the "surge" that turned around Iraq. Victory in a counter- insurgency depends more on securing the populace than on targeting enemy leaders. I am told that McChrystal realizes that, even if Woodward does not.
McChrystal also apparently grasps what McKiernan did not: Running the Afghanistan war cannot be a one-man show. There is a need to replicate the Iraq model with a four-star general focusing on strategic issues while a three-star deputy overseas daily operations. That role was filled in Iraq by Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, but McKiernan resisted such a setup in Afghanistan. Now McChrystal is expected to make Rodriguez the Odierno of Afghanistan.
Lest we forget that counterinsurgency is as much a political as a military undertaking, on the very day of McChrystal's appointment, a new U.S. ambassador arrived in Kabul. Karl Eikenberry, himself a retired general and former commander in Afghanistan, will have to coordinate the civilian side of the war effort, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker did so ably in Iraq.
While Afghanistan isn't in the dire straits that Iraq was in 2005-06, it is getting worse and poses its own unique problems, not the least of which will be bringing to heel a large number of obstreperous allies.
I've been critical of Obama's approach to the war with jihadist Islam –in my opinion, he still thinks it's September 10th– and I'm willing to bet that this move to strengthen the Afghan theater is motivated more by ensuring his domestic agenda isn't derailed by a foreign defeat than by any desire to just win the war. Regardless, Boot's is a voice I respect in foreign and military affairs, and if he sees Hope in these Changes, then that's good enough for me and I'll congratulate the President for a good move.
Now, let's win this thing.
RELATED: Two excellent sources on Afghanistan and Pakistan are the writings of Michael Yon, who often embeds with the soldiers in the field (and who also is impressed with this new team), and The Long War Journal, Bill Roggio's blog. It keeps up to date with developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other fronts of this war, and is an invaluable resource. You should bookmark both.