Chess and guerrilla warfare - both insurgency and counterinsurgency - go hand in hand. Patience and strategy are necessary while countless figures protect the kings. The insurgency in Afghanistan is a grand-master and America, the challenger, must preform flawlessly to win. The game has only begun.
But another game between President Obama and the American people is nearing an end.
Most of Obama’s supporters were thrilled as he assumed office despite his stated campaign intentions to escalate the Afghan war by two combat brigades. His 80% approval resisted negativity as the war sagged below 50%, depending on the poll. Only 34% of respondents favored increasing American troops, according to a ABC News/Washington Post, and a majority of Democrats favored a drawn down.
Yet they cheered louder than ever on January 20th. Americans mostly took Obama at his word, assuming he would turn at least part of his rhetoric into reality. With health care, the economy, and the overall tone of the White House, Obama has done reasonably well under unrealistic expectations.
Americans had to trust Obama when it came to Afghanistan, just as with education or energy reform. The likely thinking was that 17,000 troops and 4,000 Marine trainers are part of the bargain, ignoring that Obama had previously considered only 7,000. No candidate is perfect, he’s still smart, and Afghanistan is burning. One redeployment can be stomached. Maybe another smaller deployment, but that’s final.
With that trust, not in the war but in Obama’s leadership and military delegation, he claimed in an AP interview that his goals in Afghanistan “can be achieved without us increasing our troop levels.”
With that trust the game began. Pawns spread out, rooks to the corners, officers flanking the king. Now nothing is known beyond the upcoming summer, nothing can be predicted until the next 17,000 troops make their effects felt. Was Obama telling the truth or will America still need more troops? It’s too early to know.
One by one the pieces fell.
Suspicion that General David McKiernan, the former commander in Afghanistan, was fired for requesting 30,000 troops served as a prelude for the future. Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, asserts that as recently as last month, National Security Advisor James Jones told commanders in Afghanistan that Obama “would likely react badly to any near-term troop request.”
The American people will soon discover how President Obama reacts. Less than a week after he claimed no more troops would be needed, his counterinsurgency bishop, David Kilcullen, told the UK’s Independent that America will be in Afghanistan for 10 more years “at the least,” with 5 years of “pretty major combat.” Meaning more troops.
Then one of Obama’s rooks stirred in the Helmand province. Marine General Larry Nicholson, commander of the ongoing Operation Khanjar, admitted he desperately needs more Afghan forces. Nicholson added that more American troops would be nice, but “I don't necessarily need more.” Sounds like a silent plea for more.
While a strategy could be developed to counter these losses, such as citing other military officials who disagree, the game suddenly leapt ahead with the capture of Obama’s queen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Today during remarks to soldiers stationed at Fort Drum, New York, Gates said, “I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end of the year. Maybe some increase, but not a lot.”
Meaning more troops this year and definitely more next year. Though he claims to have underestimated the need, Gates inwardly wants more troops, whether transfers from Iraq, redeployments from other countries, or fresh blood from home.
Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen both refer to Afghanistan as “the long war” to brace Americans for the inevitably protracted struggle ahead. This strategy is preferred over false confidence and premature victory celebrations, so why did Obama back himself into a corner instead of being similarly upfront? He’s too constrained by political ramifications, worried that further escalation could damage his own reputation. This is both the effect of an insurgency and the wrong approach to counterinsurgency.
At first President Obama had protection. Now he’s alone, vulnerable. No one voted for Obama based on his military expertise and going against his military advisers would be political suicide. His final move is a formality; Obama must admit more troops are necessary for Afghanistan or stick to a position abandoned by his advisers. He’s the last man standing between us and the truth. It’s checkmate.
Rejoice America, if but briefly. This fleeting victory is ours.