Barack Obama has committed to a “surge” strategy for Afghanistan, at least in terms of troops. Publicly, he has called for an additional two combat brigades to move from Iraq to the NATO alliance in order to bolster an increasingly shaky effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, the fight in Afghanistan still enjoys popular support, as did the Iraq war until sectarian violence almost allowed the Democrats to dictate a surrender to the Bush administration. Will Obama stick with the fight if it becomes less popular?
Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Eric Egland has his doubts:
On the first point, both presidential hopefuls have made statements expressing the need to win in Afghanistan — a positive sign, as far as speeches go. Each has expressed his support for additional troops to contend with Afghanistan’s porous borders, challenging terrain, and dispersed population. There is little doubt that McCain has the will to back up his rhetoric; but Obama’s dedication to the task remains in doubt, especially if things were to get tough and public support were to wane, as it did in Iraq in 2006. Today, Obama speaks as if a surge in Afghanistan were his own idea. (Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain ally, deserves credit for that.) But if public opinion were to turn against an Afghan surge, it is easy to imagine Obama pulling the plug on the operation before the mission was completed. One can almost anticipate the familiar rhetorical moves: He could blame his favorite pincushion, President Bush — but also General Petraeus, the man behind the very success in Iraq that Obama refuses to acknowledge.
On the second issue, Senator Obama claims better wartime judgment because he, as a state legislator on the South Side of Chicago, opposed the Iraq War from the start — as did the overwhelming percentage of his constituents (hardly a profile in courage). In January 2007, Senator Obama said the surge would worsen security in Iraq, and unveiled a plan to withdraw all forces by March 2008. Had we followed Obama’s wartime plan, Iraq would be in chaos and the U.S. would be tearing itself apart arguing over how we could have lost a war without losing a decisive battle — Vietnam all over again. Worse, Al Qaeda would have achieved two strategic goals: defeating the U.S., and establishing a new base of operations from which to plan, finance, and train for a new wave of 9/11-style terror attacks.
In sharp contrast with Obama’s wartime judgment, Senator McCain called for the new, effective approach in Iraq a full year before even his own party supported the idea. McCain faced broad criticism when he first called for a new strategy — yet he held firm in his conviction that we must adapt to today’s insurgencies, and eventually brought others along to his way of thinking.
Egland didn’t believe that we should have invaded Iraq before March 2003. In his work on WMD intelligence, he didn’t see Saddam Hussein as the threat that the Bush administration believed him to be. Once we invaded, however, Egland writes that the US had to win the war it started, because failure would be disastrous to American credibility and a huge boost to the fortunes of AQ and our other adversaries in the area.
McCain, Egland believes, understands that, but Obama has demonstrated that he does not. His repeated calls for withdrawal while engaging the enemy in Iraq shows that he lacks that key comprehension about strength and credibility. If the fight gets tough in Afghanistan and our allies begin to pull out as they did in Iraq, will a President Obama show the strength and the courage needed to get America to victory?
Bad times will come on this front — in fact, they have already come over the last couple of years. The Taliban had gained significant momentum thanks to questionable “truces” arranged by NATO commanders with Taliban-sympathizing tribal leaders and a lack of aggressive tactics. It took a shake-up in NATO command in the winter of 2006-7 and new aggressive use of air power to seize momentum back. The next time the Taliban successfully adjust to our tactics, will Obama be patient enough to have military commanders adapt, improvise, and overcome — or will he throw up his hands and declare defeat like one of the leaders of his party?
Fortunately, for those voters who pay attention, we’ve already seen the track record of both candidates on this question. One candidate talks tough; the other demonstrates toughness and commitment. And with the Left only marginally supportive of the fight in Afghanistan, and one suspects for electoral rather than strategic reasons, Obama won’t have much motivation to stand tall when his base turns on the effort.