President Obama has ordered sufficient reinforcements to Afghanistan to execute a war strategy that can succeed. We applaud this decision. And we urge everyone to rally round the effort to defeat our enemies and accomplish objectives vital to America's national security.
Obama's decision, and the speech in which it was announced, were not flawless. The president should have met his commander's full request for forces. He should not have announced a deadline for the start of the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He should have committed to a specific and significant increase in the size of the Afghan National Security Forces. He should also have explained more clearly the relationship between defeating the Taliban and defeating al Qaeda, the significance of such a victory, and the reasons his Afghan strategy can succeed. The secretaries of defense and state, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made those arguments far more compellingly in subsequent congressional testimony than the president did at West Point.
We shouldn't miss the forest for the trees, however. When all the rhetorical and other problems are stripped away, the fact remains that Obama has, in his first year in office, committed to doubling our forces in Afghanistan and embraced our mission there. Indeed, the plan the president announced on Tuesday features a commendably rapid deployment of reinforcements to the theater, with most of the surge forces arriving over the course of this winter, allowing them to be in position before the enemy's traditional fighting season begins.
The bottom line: Our very capable field commander, General Stanley McChrystal, will have 100,000 American troops by the middle of next year to take the fight to the enemy and regain the initiative in the war. General McChrystal has expressed confidence in his ability to execute his strategy with these resources. He and his superior in the chain of command, General David Petraeus, have earned the right to the nation's confidence in their judgment.
It's also important to note that General McChrystal and his forces have not stood still for the last four months, as the president pondered his options. They have moved rapidly to set the conditions to take advantage of the surge of forces, accomplishing a number of important tasks that will make the job of taking the fight to the enemy in 2010 much easier.
Problems of command-and-control in particular have bedeviled our efforts in Afghanistan, especially in the south where the fight is the most important right now. British forces have been focused on Helmand and Canadian on Kandahar--such that the regions were often called "Helmandshire" and "Canadahar"--but there was no unified approach even within Regional Command South (commanded until recently by a Dutch general without a full staff working for him), let alone between the south and the U.S.-controlled Regional Command East. There was also no operational command in Afghanistan equivalent to the Multinational Corps-Iraq structure. The effort to train Afghan security forces was run from a headquarters that was not part of the same command structure as the U.S. and allied troops on the ground fighting.
These deficiencies made the development and execution of a coherent, theater-wide strategy for fighting the insurgency and building up Afghan forces almost impossible. They generated friction between allies and between the coalition and the Afghans. They played an important role in the deterioration of the situation to this point.
All have now been corrected. Lieutenant-General David Rodriguez (who previously commanded a division in Afghanistan) heads a newly created joint command similar to the Multinational Corps-Iraq headed so successfully by General Ray Odierno during the 2007 surge. Lieutenant-General William Caldwell heads the new NATO training command. The British have deployed a full division headquarters to take control in Regional Command South and enact a coherent plan for the entire region that fits perfectly with McChrystal's overall theater strategy.
Another major flaw in the U.S. and NATO approach to the Afghan conflict was the failure to understand the full nature and scale of the challenge. Some NATO countries did not want to admit that they were fighting a war or a counterinsurgency and such language was avoided. The mission was understood to be supporting the Afghan government without addressing its endemic corruption and abuse of power. Economic activities focused on development--as though what mattered about Afghanistan was its poverty rather than the insurgency.
Additional NATO forces arriving in Afghanistan now know that they are going to fight a counterinsurgency war. General McChrystal's assessment noted that the failings of the Afghan government are as much of a challenge as the enemy's capabilities. The commanders are well aware that they must do more than "connect the government with the people" (the previous mantra), but must also reform and restrain the government while strengthening it. The American aid community and parts of the international aid community are also changing their approaches to recognize that defeating the insurgency and providing security are the pre-requisites to development and anti-poverty efforts.
General McChrystal has in addition improved the effectiveness of the forces he has under his command today. He pulled U.S. troops out of isolated and remote outposts where they were in some cases more targets for the enemy than components of a coherent offensive strategy. He has also taken steps to reduce Afghan civilian casualties.
Perhaps most important, he has transformed the way allied forces work to build the capacity of Afghan Security Forces, importing critical lessons from our experience in Iraq. In addition to mentoring and advising Afghan units with small numbers of embedded trainers, General McChrystal has ordered American combat units to partner with their Afghan counterparts. They plan and conduct operations together as units, share intelligence, and fight together. As we saw in Iraq, a partnership at all levels is the fastest and most effective way to build indigenous combat forces, and it will be the model for U.S. and allied training efforts in Afghanistan from now on.
All of these changes create the conditions in which the deployment of additional American combat forces may be able to achieve decisive results over the next 18 months. This would be even easier if our civilian leadership in the country integrated their efforts with the military's as was done in Iraq in 2007. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team were almost as crucial to our success in Iraq as General David Petraeus. And the fact that Crocker and Petraeus worked hand-in-glove was of inestimable value. President Obama owes it to our troops--and to the American people--to try to replicate that happy conjunction of civilian and military effort in Afghanistan.
Nothing is certain in war, and the enemy always gets a vote, but we can be confident that the strategy and forces that will be in place in Afghanistan early next year have a good chance of success. And success will mean more than merely reversing the Taliban's momentum. Taken together with the recent achievements of the Pakistani military against that country's separate but related Taliban movements, success in Afghanistan could mark a turning point in the struggle against Islamism in South Asia. In this way, our efforts over the next couple of years in Afghanistan are not simply the assumption of a distressing duty; they are the seizing of an important opportunity in the global struggle in which we're engaged.
National security has been a polarizing issue in American politics for a long time. Democrats--including, unfortunately, many in the Obama administration--still want to blame the Bush administration for all our woes. Republicans can't resist focusing on the flaws in the president's plan and annoying aspects of his West Point speech. Everyone wants to relitigate past fights. In the case of Afghanistan--a war both parties have agreed is vital to our national interest, with tens of thousands of American soldiers already on the line and more on the way--we should get beyond the squabbling.
Republicans will have the opportunity--and the responsibility--to criticize this administration's policies toward Iran, China, and Russia; its defense budgets; and its detainee policies, to say nothing of its domestic policy initiatives. Democrats will respond. But the president's announcement of a sound and feasible strategy in Afghanistan gives us a chance to show to ourselves and the world that politics really can stop at the water's edge when the nation's safety is at stake and our troops are fighting on our behalf.
So we say: Support the troops. Support the mission. Support the president.
Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.