As I grew to maturity in the years after the Vietnam War, I thought I understood for sure one thing about U.S. national security strategy: After the debacle of our Southeast Asian intervention, the United States would never get in another war unless we intended to win it. We would never provide too few troops to do the job, and we’d act with resolve to see the mission through.
Never again would our soldiers’ lives and their service be wasted. Never again would allies who trusted us be left hanging – literally. Never again would the world question the power or the reliability the United States. Because if we used our magnificent fighting forces correctly, no enemy could withstand us.
We’d do it right, or we wouldn’t do it at all. It didn’t require a Harvard degree to understand the wisdom of this. Maybe, perhaps, a third grade education.
In 1991, I was gratified to see that I was right. Confronted with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and ordered by George H.W. Bush to reverse it, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell made a heartwarming statement.
Our strategy in going after this army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.
And that’s exactly what he did. The United States assembled a coalition of nearly a million troops, three quarters of them American, and they finished off Saddam Hussein’s army in a matter of days. Mission accomplished. For real.
In 2003, when George W. Bush decided to attack Iraq, I had my concerns that something might be amiss. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld kept talking about some new doctrine that would allow minimal force to push Saddam aside. We had all this great technology – as if high tech warfare was something brand new.
Well, after a little bit of uncertainty, Saddam was indeed gone. Bush the son thought he had his Mission Accomplished too. Until it became sickeningly clear that he actually hadn’t used enough troops, because we couldn’t secure our victory. It took Bush four more years to finally acknowledge his mistake and put enough troops in to finish the job.
All the while, the Bush people were assuring us in the press corps that the Iraq war wasn’t distracting at all from the fight in Afghanistan. That, it turned out, was a lie.
And so President Obama inherited a mess in Afghanistan. His generals told him they needed at least 40,000 troops to defeat the Taliban, and 80,000 to ensure success.
So he gave them 33,000.
He too, had forgotten the lessons of Vietnam.
The problem with what Obama announced last night – the return of 10,000 of the Afghan surge troops by the end of this year and the rest of them by next summer – is not complex.
The limited surge Obama provided his generals forced them to do the job of eradicating the Taliban piecemeal instead of all at once.
They’ve had some success in the south, where they concentrated their forces, and the plan is to consolidate their gains and subdue the other restive region in the east during next year’s summer fighting season.
Except now they can’t.
I give you some analysis from the tribe of war hawks over at the New York Times. Yes, “New York Times war hawks” is a joke. The article this morning quotes Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who retired from the Army in 2006 after serving as the senior American commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
“Putting a September 2012 expiration tag on the rest of the surge raises real concerns,” (said) General Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a policy research center. “That’s the middle of the fighting season.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another policy research center, said the September pullout date really means that many of those troops will stop carrying out their missions months earlier.
The president’s timetable, he said, “will require troops to spend most of the summer on the downsizing effort when they arguably should spend most of the summer fighting and taking away safe havens from extremists.”
Mr. O’Hanlon and General Barno said it was hard to fathom the military logic of setting a withdrawal deadline for the surge right in the middle of the fighting season. “This is a rushed ending to what has been a fairly effective surge,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
Others have noted that now Pakistan won’t go after Taliban in Pakistan, but will seek a peace treaty; and our alliance partners will surely head for the gates.
Obama is fighting the war Obama wants, not the one the country needs. The only conceivable reason to bring those troops home in the summer of 2012 instead of December is so Obama can campaign on it in the fall.
As he has time and again, Obama makes clear the presidency he wants is one where he is spending money on liberal priorities at home, not fighting America’s enemies. As he said last night:
Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people . . . America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.
And so he bends reality to suit his wishes.
Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.
No, it’s not. With the surge troops just recently fully engaged, violence in Afghanistan is increasing. The battle is stepping up. American soldiers are winning, as we knew they would. And now they’re being told to disengage – probably destroying their morale – and the Taliban is being given a timetable for waiting us out – certainly helping theirs.
Obama fancies himself a new Abraham Lincoln. What he forgets is that Lincoln – dear old honest Abe – ruthlessly ground down the enemy until it had been shattered into abject surrender.
Lincoln had learned the lesson of Vietnam exactly a century before it was fought. That’s why he has a monument, the one Obama visits so often.