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Advice to Obama about Afghanistan: Don’t be fooled again

As President Barack Obama contemplates the strategy for Afghanistan going forward, the neo-conservatives are hard at work making their pitch for continuing the war and doubling down with an additional commitment of troops. This is the same crowd that miscalculated and misled the American public into a war of choice in Iraq at the expense of the effort in Afghanistan and is now leading the charge once again. By leaking confidential reports to the Washington Post, writing op-ed commentaries in the New York Times, and making guest appearances on a variety of TV and radio shows, they seek to build public support that has otherwise been on the decline.

Some of the cheerleaders, like Kimberly Kagan, have advised the field commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and participated on his strategy review team, likely at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. Others include Frederick Kagan, a resident at the right-wing and military-industrial complex-connected think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. After squandering eight years in pursuit of a failed strategy, America has seen Afghanistan morph into a narco-state and Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora.

Why should we listen to these people? They have done more to undermine our national security than can quickly be summarized here. While they hold themselves out as “experts,” it is clear that they and their sponsors are set to benefit financially from a continued massive war effort. In turn, their right-wing congressional allies will get their campaign contributions even as they publicly bemoan the massive federal deficits. This is nothing less than the entrenched military-industrial complex in action — which President Dwight D. Eisenhower had the courage to warn the American people about as he left office.

A limited objective
The president should make his decision on what is the best strategy to protect the vital interests of United States. As he has articulated, our primary interest is to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy the al-Qaida network” to prevent future attacks on the U.S. homeland or on our NATO allies. This limited objective doesn’t include nation building, nor does it include a massive counterinsurgency effort in support of an inept and corrupt Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, handpicked by the neo-conservatives years ago, arguably now lacks legitimacy since the corruption has extended to the ballot box.

The choice now being advocated — send more troops or lose the war — is a false choice and one that they have used before. Despite the fact that our military has been stressed and overextended, they have brilliantly executed every mission that they have been asked to do. They will not be ejected from Afghanistan unless we foolishly choose to expand the mission into an unsustainable effort of nation-building. The smart strategy is to lower the military footprint, limit both military and civilian casualties, and use our intelligence and Special Forces assets to strike al-Qaida.

This is exactly where Gen. McChrystal has the expertise. The “experts” also know that counterinsurgencies are not won by a foreign occupation force, no matter how noble the motives. Afghans must stand up for their own country — and while our NATO allies have provided support, they mostly have done so with restrictions on the use of their troops in a direct combat role. Using them to help train Afghans will complement this lower profile strategy.

Getting bogged down would limit options
The United States has many vital interests around the world, and we cannot afford to have our Army and Marines bogged down for another extended period, as happened in Iraq. That strategy will only limit the president’s options to deal with some future crisis, whether it is in Africa, Asia or even potentially just south of our border in Latin America.

Additionally, we cannot afford the financial commitment to rebuild another country while the infrastructure in the United States continues to deteriorate; neither can we afford the continued casualties — of which more than half are attributable to IED’s or accidents, not actual fighting.

The president must be clear on our vital interests around the world and match our national strategy accordingly. Only then can a proper decision be made about the troop levels. I trust that he will make a wise choice.

Col. Leonard Kloeber is a West Point graduate and retired from the U.S. Army after 30 years of active and reserve service. He resides in Prior Lake, Minn., and is the author of “Victory Principles, Leadership Lessons From D-Day.”

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/19/2009 - 10:10 am.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the Colonel’s conclusion.

    However I do have to admit that reading a scathing rebuke to the “military-industrial complex” from a fellow that received a fine education and a long, well compensated career in service to it left me unable to stifle a chuckle.

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/19/2009 - 11:34 am.

    Great analysis of the warmongers’ motivations, Colonel.

    President Obama’s election would not have been possible without the early support in primaries that he received from liberals who were very impressed with his anti-war stance, evident in his Senate vote against funding the Iraq blunder.

    Thank goodness President Obama is surrounding himself with more competent advisers than Bush ever did.

    Still, I must keep my fingers crossed that President Obama will not choose to engage in nation-building, because the temptation is great to do so.

  3. Submitted by Sieglinde Gassman on 10/19/2009 - 01:21 pm.

    Thanks to Col Kloeber for his excellent advice and his confidence that President Obama will heed it. As someone who experienced the war in Vietnam from the homefront, studied it in the 90s, I endorse the strategy outlined by Col Kloeber that would focus on Al Qaeda and keep us out of Afghani politics.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/19/2009 - 02:23 pm.

    As someone who experienced the moon landing from the couch in my parents house, I endorse the use of a wood for bunker shots from the rim of the Babbage crater.

    Don’t listen to Tiger Woods, the guy is a multi-cultural mouthpiece for Ping.


    I don’t endorse the idea that strategic planning for this country’s defense has any place in the hands of ideologues of any stripe.

    The debacle of Iraq started the day Bush the elder turned back at Baghdad, and got 100% worse when Bush the younger jumped reflexively. We’ve done just about everything we can do to clean that mess up, and it may well be time to bid ‘au revoir.

    Afghanistan is another story. This is where our most dedicated and fanatical enemy calls home. They are on an extended camping trip in Pakistan right now, but they will return as soon as American security forces leave.

    Reducing the mission to a “special forces” campaign may have merit, however, to suggest a unilateral pull out is utter stupidity.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/19/2009 - 04:20 pm.

    I hope the president thinks long and hard I hope he studies this up and down. I hope he takes some advice outside of the usual suspects in Washington D.C. and across the river at the Pentagon.

    You are not going to solve 2000 years of problems in the 2 to 4 years of the first tour of the Obama administration. We didn’t do the job in the 8 years of the Bush administration. We’ve wasted eight years up to this point.

    According to counter insurgency doctrine, General Daniel McNeil, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has stated that it would take 400,000 troops to do the job. For only Pashtun areas, COIN requires more than 280,000 troops—far more than we maintain in Iraq. Due to the cost(65 billion pr/yr) and manpower requirements, though, few propose a full counterinsurgency strategy.

    The 40,000 to 80,000 that Gen. McChrystal is proposing seems to pale in comparison to what the numbers should be.

    Indeed it is very likely that the President will rethink his strategy in that country and is already preparing the ground with a “strategy overview” to decide if the Taliban is really a threat and if Al Qaeda is likely to return if American troops depart that unhappy land. Expect the report to return qualified negatives to both queries, permitting a draw down of the Afghan mission. It will prove very hard to partner with a Karzai government that the Afghans will not support. Can we convince the Afghans to “like” their government more than the Taliban? That remains to be seen.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/19/2009 - 04:32 pm.

    And who is fear-mongering our population and many members of Congress and the administration about Iran’s “intention” to build nuclear weapons someday and use them on Israel?

    It’s some of the same neocons who were responsible for the lies that led us to Iraq, of course, but with the addition of some far-right Christian Zionists who think Iran must be destroyed to prevent this attack from Iran.

    Iran is surely not so stupid as to consider for a moment an attack from them on Israel would not incur immediate retaliation.

  7. Submitted by James Warden on 10/19/2009 - 08:39 pm.

    I think Kloeber’s quote here gets to the crux of the problem – however you feel about the specifics of the Afghanistan debate:

    “The president must be clear on our vital interests around the world and match our national strategy accordingly. Only then can a proper decision be made about the troop levels.”

    Kloeber is (or should be) using strategy in a very specific context, and I suspect he is using it in the context of a larger national planning process that roughly follows as such: Recognize that you’re in a conflict, identify the enemy, determine the primary political goal, determine a global strategy and determine a course of action that brings success in the individual theaters of the conflict. Decisions at each level should be nested within the context of the steps before it.

    Idealogues’ swaying strategic debate is part of the problem, but it can only happen because of a larger ignorance about the decision-making process in a conflict and what constitutes strategy. Counterinsurgency is doctrine that determines how armies fight. It is not strategy. Resource allocation is part of a national strategy, but it alone does not constitute a strategy.

    We need a common consensus on the process and language, if not the outcome. This knowledge is as important for individual citizens as it is for military officers like Kloeber because so many decisions in a conflict are political.

    Further, we also must do a better job of situating decisions at one level within the context of higher levels. Both sides are having a strategic debate about operational goals, when it should be the other way around.

    Of course, this can’t happen until we’ve actually made decisions at those higher levels. We clearly recognize that we’re in a conflict. But we’re more conflicted about the chosen enemy (al Qaeda or a broader group of Islamic extremists?) and our primary political goal (preventing another attack?) – much less all the subsequent steps.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/19/2009 - 10:09 pm.

    Counterinsurgency is only as good as the government it supports. NATO could do everything right — it isn’t — but will still fail unless Afghans trust their government

    If we see no genuine progress on such steps toward government responsibility, the United States should “Afghanize,” draw down troops and prepare to mitigate the inevitable humanitarian disaster that will come when the Kabul government falls to the Taliban — which, in the absence of reform, it eventually and deservedly will.

  9. Submitted by Mike Wyatt on 10/23/2009 - 01:16 pm.

    Often, as I see the Afghan war play out in the mainstream media, I cannot help but reflect on what our “stated” goals are, and what other true priorities are in play in Afghanistan.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the Colonel’s opinion on Cheney and the neo-cons and their efforts to boost the military-industrial complex. It seems to have been the reason for involvement in Iran. Undoubtedly, the same special interests have benefited greatly from our involvement in Afghanistan.

    With Afghanistan, a couple of things come to mind. One, the opium trade. It permeates every segment of their society, and more importantly, their politics. The land is not suitable for other crops reasonably, so the people have to get by somehow. Still, with our occupation spanning some 8 years now, the flow of Afghan heroin into countries such as Russia is at epidemic levels. Karzai is a drug lord, and the US put him into power! How can we expect competent government when it is founded on narcotics? So do we wage yet another failed drug war in Afghanistan? The flow of drugs into Russia and SE Asia is creating massive corruption in those nations as well. Not to mention the 5 million heroin addicts that have surfaced in Russia and the 1 million AIDS cases due to dirty needles. This influx of heroin into Russia has been compared to the flooding of Opium into China by the british during the Chinese opium wars. Are we attempting to de-stablize Russia?

    What else is in the region? Controlling the narcotics is lucrative. However, the natural gas reserves in the former Soviet republics in SE Asia are reportedly the largest in the world. Waging war, setting up bases, and controlling natural resources seem to be obvious objectives and of great interest to the West. Afghanistan is used to pipe the natural gas to Western Europe and beyond to the US. The Taliban seems to be the greatest “threat” in the region now- a group formed and trained by the British and Pakistan governments to drive out the Russian from the region. More and more, we are waging war against the former puppet forces and governments in the World that are our own doing. I cannot help but think terrorism in a convenient cover for any number of American “objectives” these days. It’s tough to make it sound appealing to Americans saying we are displacing millions of people to go after natural gas resources, and is much more palatable to put the “face of terror” on our objectives instead.

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