The decision point on the Af-Pak theater

The Washington Post reports on General Stanley McChrystal’s new assessment of the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, which challenges the Obama administration to either commit to the fight or retreat altogether.  McChrystal warns that he needs an influx of new troops in serious numbers to support his counterinsurgency efforts in the region, and without them the war could be lost in as short a period as a year.  It provides a decision point that will test Barack Obama’s commitment to the war he insisted America should be fighting when he opposed the surge in Iraq:

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.

The big problems in Afghanistan have not changed.  The elected government has rampant corruption and its reach does not extend far beyond the major cities.  Its infrastructure is non-existent, a fact that NATO has been trying to improve, and which the Taliban have been trying to stop.  Afghanistan’s security forces have developed and grown, but not at the rate needed to have them replace Western troops, even if the fighting were to miraculously disappear or be greatly reduced.  The Taliban continue to operate out of bases in Pakistan, which Western forces can only hit by air, or with covert troops on rare occasions.

McChrystal adds a few new problems into the mix.  After several years of fighting against the West, the Taliban has refined its capabilities for fighting and for propaganda.  Both have become more effective.  Even when NATO succeeds in capturing Taliban fighters, it becomes a problem, since the captured Taliban get mixed into general prison populations and radicalize the other inmates.  McChrystal describes these as al-Qaeda bases.

It’s not a pretty picture, and McChrystal’s report clearly defines this as a fish-or-cut-bait moment.  If we hope to prevail, we will need a political commitment for more resources over a much longer period of time than most politicians have been willing to report.  Michael Yon has insisted that means decades of Western involvement, to make sure that an Afghanistan we eventually leave will not slide back into the Afghanistan of the post-Soviet period, where radical Islam prevails and terrorist networks build central offices for attacks on the world.  Either we commit to this fight, or we should pull out altogether.

This brings us to Barack Obama.  The left wing of his party wants to retreat from both Afghanistan and Iraq, and this report gives them the bright line in the sand they need.  The GOP have been very supportive on Afghanistan, with a few notable exceptions (George Will being the most prominent).  The center bought Obama as something other than a typical liberal shrinking violet on American power based on his campaign pledges to fight and win in Afghanistan.  A retreat might lose the GOP, which he never had except on this issue, and win back his left wing, but it will absolutely undermine his credibility with the center and further erode his political standing.

So what path will Obama choose?  Obama will probably try to kick the can down the road even further to avoid the political consequences of a hard choice in either direction.  That means either no new troops or an insufficient increase, with no commitment for the long term.  That’s exactly what McChrystal warns will lose this war in this report.  If Obama does act in that manner, it will be interesting to see if McChrystal stays in his position or abruptly retires.

Addendum:  My friend and neighbor Pete Hegseth works tirelessly for Vets For Freedom, which has a new petition demanding that the White House fully commit to the Af-Pak theater and resource the forces there appropriately.  The Wall Street Journal reports on the petition here.  Be sure to read them both.

Update: Do not miss an extraordinarily good assessment by Bruce McQuain at QandO.  It’s lengthy but absolutely dead on point.  Here’s a small taste:

Victory is used in a military sense. Victory is success. But we all know that while the military is an integral part of any success we might have there, ultimately it can’t “win” the day by itself. Success will be defined as leaving a sovereign nation capable of governing and defending itself when we eventually leave. We may not like that definition, we may not like the fact that we’re again engaged in nation building and we may not like the fact that such an endeavor is going to take years, possibly decades to achieve – but that is the situation we now find ourselves in. If we were to abandon Afghanistan now, we’d see it quickly revert to the state it was in 2001 – ruled by Islamic fundamentalists and a safe-haven for our most avowed enemies.

We have to decide now whether or not we’re going to commit to the “long war” to achieve the success I’ve outlined or whether we, like many nations before us, will leave Afghanistan to its fate and suffer the consequences such an abandonment may bring in the future.

And, as always, get updated on the situation by reading everything Michael Yon has reported, good and bad, and don’t forget to hit his tip jar.