Neither this summer nor the next will be kind to the West’s campaign in Afghanistan. US and NATO deaths in June rest at 54, a record for the month after nine years of war, with 10 days still to go. Marjah and Kandahar refuse to show the kind of progress Washington was hoping for.
The political sphere is no different. Both skeptical of the US's strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to attract scrutiny while Pakistan has yet to disconnect from the Afghan Taliban.
This mass of negativity has yielded a propaganda battle between the Pentagon, the international media, and to a lesser extent the US media. The former accuses the latter entities of “cynically” prejudging US strategy as a failure, and has launched every missile in its arsenal to counter the overwhelming pessimism.
After Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a glowing review of President Barack Obama’s surge to the US Congress, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell channeled his boss by seizing control of the narrative.
“In the year since, that growth has been halted, and we are taking back territory from the Taliban,” Morrell insisted. “Their momentum has been thwarted, but it is still far too soon for us to say it has swung completely in our favor.”
The Pentagon’s irritable reaction to negative perceptions surrounding Afghanistan has only created more collateral damage. For the last year US commanders preached the importance of perception in counterinsurgency, and how often perception becomes reality. Now we’re being told to ignore other perceptions in favor the Pentagon’s.
Backlash to the Pentagon’s backlash illustrates the latest example of how Washington doesn’t get it.
A propaganda campaign that denies everything the US and NATO publics are hearing naturally fuels new doubts of America’s strategy. Gates, Morrell, and company are digging a deeper hole for themselves by blatantly closing ranks and responding in group-think. Though the Pentagon continues to argue that the war needs to be “reframed,” it appears unable to do so.
That leaves President Obama.
The White House has many problems in Afghanistan, but from a political standpoint they stem from one overriding disadvantage. Likely as a hedge, Obama has publicly dissociated himself from the war and negated his personal abilities in the process. Rarely does he engage the media on Afghanistan, seemingly uncomfortable with doing so, and his cabinet deploys only when the media must be combated. Karzai’s recent visit to Washington, for example.
Right now Obama is allowing the Pentagon to sell his war through a phalanx of yes-men.
Instead, he should hold another national address on Afghanistan and radically depart from prior speeches. He cannot spend the beginning recalling 9/11 and the rest confidently but solemnly pledging victory. He must honestly confront the American people, and by extension every state and people affected by the conflict, of which they are too numerous to list.
This obviously sounds idealistic, but is in fact realist policy. As the totality of Afghanistan becomes uncontrollable to its Western handlers, panic serves no interest except the Taliban’s and its allies. Only through integrity can Obama secure lasting political support for the Afghanistan war. Washington has tried lies - and they’ve failed miserably.
With the situation so destabilized, both in Afghanistan and on the West’s political front, it becomes all the more critical to simplify the root equation. Influential defense analyst Anthony Cordesman articulated this position in a report to the Center For Strategic & International Studies, titled: Realism in Afghanistan: Rethinking an Uncertain Case for the War.
Fortunately for Obama, the fundamentals of counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan can be laid on the table by a novice with limited time.
"Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict,” Cordesman writes. “The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”
Cordesman's first question depends on the second, which consequently becomes more important. Not until a third dimension is added though, one left open ended by Cordesman: how long will “winning” take? Can counterinsurgency work in Afghanistan and how much time is necessary - these two questions are jamming the US machine.
It’s up to Obama to clarify them.
The answer to the first question is a conditional yes. Applied correctly, across all spectrums of military and non-military operations, and counterinsurgency can potentially stabilize Afghanistan. Gaining majority support from Afghans is possible with patience and awareness, as is negotiating with elements of the Taliban unaligned with al-Qaeda. Pakistan remains a wild-card, but may be willing to permanently resolve the conflict through Taliban negotiations.
Whether US leadership can apply COIN principles is far less certain and reality is tilting towards the negative. But the question has never been whether COIN is possible so much as how long it will take, which necessarily decides the cost.
Cordesman, while leaving the final outcome undecided, goes into detail on deadlines and expectations. For him Obama’s July 2011 has been voided, as he should think in light of the Pentagon’s retraction. General David Petraeus recently downplayed both Obama’s review in December and the July 2011 deadline while testifying to Congress, an omen of thing to come.
Says Cordesman, “One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline, and/or if the GIRoA and the Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people, and our allies perceive it as a deadline. The same will be true if the timing of the campaign, and the impact of US and allied actions, are defined in terms of unrealistic expectations. No amount of planning, discussion, and analysis can set clear deadlines for this war.”
Obama must start by preempting his own deadline before December.
People from all nations realize the game is over. It’s time to come clean that 18 months was never a possibility to withdraw US troops or transfer control to Afghan forces, but a gross underestimate and an error. He will be forced to default anyway, and lying until December will only make any decision harder to sell.
As for a deadline, while impossible to set in stone, Obama can offer a more realistic time-frame for the US people to choose whether to support the war or not.
They should know that US and NATO operations will require another five years minimum to demonstrate verifiable trends of success. Costs will rise. Real COIN demands long-term nation-building, which Afghanistan desperately needs, yet the West is primarily sustaining its own security operations. Though non-military aid is generally cheaper than military, the heavy economic lifting required in nation-building has yet to begin.
And this phase would be the longest of all.
“One can guarantee that it is better to have a credible chance of victory in 2012-2013 than it is to rush to defeat in 2010-2011,” Cordesman predicts. “Moreover, it is fairly easy to predict the political cost of pretending that the aftermath will not require serious aid expenditures, and US and allied military advisory and support efforts, well beyond 2015... In fact, even the most optimistic estimate of any mining and agricultural development effort indicates that major financial support is likely to be needed through 2020.”
“It is time to be honest about this.”
Specifically, it’s time for Obama to be honest. For Washington to fear or oppose expressing the truth to the American people and the global community, while simultaneously demanding untold blood, time, and billions for the war, is unacceptable. Unorthodox as it would be to speak such haunting truth, Obama will only generate support - whether staying or withdrawing from Afghanistan - through transparency.
He's not going to last with the Pentagon fighting his PR battles too.