Conservatives: Abandoning Counterinsurgency Is Not Abandoning the Afghan War!

Many in the American conservative community have signed on to support President Obama's Afghan war strategy -- counterinsurgency (COIN) -- out of the mistaken belief that not supporting COIN would mean abandoning the main theater of war against the Islamic jihadis. But what in this situation is causing normally clear-thinking individuals to back a war strategy that is obviously on a trajectory to failure? 

To begin with, there is a legitimate concern that abandoning Afghanistan will signal a major defeat for the U.S. and the West in the broader jihad waged globally by al-Qaeda and its lookalikes, thus inviting increased jihadi aggression. This conclusion is not in dispute; history clearly shows that Islamic jihad feeds on the weakness of the non-Muslim world. When a jihad victory is achieved, jihadis see it as the consequence of the triumphal promise of Islam -- that is, Islamic domination of the world is foreordained by Allah in Quranic Sura 24:52 ("It is they that obey Allah and His Messenger, and fear Allah and do right [spreading Islam], that will triumph.")

The humbling of the superpowers, beginning with the 1979 occupation of the American embassy in Tehran (an unanswered act of war), coupled with the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in defeat, convinced the Islamic jihadis in both the Shia and Sunni sects that the time was right to renew with a vigor the 1,400-year old jihad against the non-Muslim world. The Shia Khomeinist Hezb'allah and the Sunni Salafist al-Qaeda are two of the most prominent jihadi organizations that were launched as a consequence of these superpower humiliations. They began their jihadi terror against the Western world in the 1980s, and it continues to this day.

Most conservatives and a few liberals understand the importance that the Shariah-faithful mujahideen place on the tremendous momentum to be gained by replicating the Soviet superpower debacle in Afghanistan against the U.S., the only remaining but dwindling superpower. Consequently, conservatives are prone to gladly accept any effort advanced by the Obama administration to counter the Islamic jihad, especially when it is cloaked in the alleged success of "the surge" in Iraq.

Americans, however, daily become more and more aware that the Iraq surge was oversold by President Bush and the Republicans for obvious political reasons. While initially skeptical, Democrats stopped challenging Republican surge success claims after gaining the White House so as to be able to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible, all the while proclaiming "victory" under the newly aligned war leadership of Obama-Gates. Related to this Democrat about-face was the fact that Obama had cynically adopted the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign mantra, "Afghanistan is the good war," since it appeared in 2006-2007 that the Afghan war was winding down and would require minimal warfighting in the future. It was a great campaign slogan to appear hawkish on defense, all the while criticizing the Bush conduct of the Iraq war. But the situation began to change significantly in 2008 as the Taliban reemerged as a dangerous insurgent force in the south and west of Afghanistan.

By the time Obama took office in January 2009, the Afghan war had definitely taken a turn for the worse, trapping Obama in his cynical commitment to "the good war." It appears that, being completely devoid of any will to fight or knowledge of war, Obama latched onto the conventional wisdom that COIN and the surge had won in Iraq and made them his own in desperation. In March 2009, Obama announced a "comprehensive, new strategy" and his version of a surge in Afghanistan, followed in May 2009 with the naming of General Stanley McChrystal as his new commander in Afghanistan and a reconfirmation of COIN as his strategy.

Obama, however, quickly suffered buyer's remorse when McChrystal sent his strategic plan and a request for still more troops to Obama in August 2009. Obama dithered from August until December 2009, finally giving McChrystal 10,000 troops less than he requested and setting a time certain, July 2011, as a troop withdrawal date. In spite of Obama's uncertain trumpet call to arms, conservatives flocked to line up behind him and reinforce the flagging enthusiasm for fighting the Islamic jihadis in a far-off land.

So now, with McChrystal's foot-in-mouth firing and the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus, celebrated COIN guru, in his stead, the U.S. finds itself tied to a failing COIN strategy with a commander-in-chief who has no stomach or instinct for the fight. In this gloomy and confused situation, conservatives have adopted a "Leonidas at Thermopylae"-like dedication "to stay the course" in the misguided belief that just such determination is what ultimately won the war in Iraq. Of course, the war is far from actually won in Iraq, but neither conservatives nor Democrats have the courage right now to look behind that curtain and admit the truth.

Now is the time for conservatives (and any concerned liberals) to ask: Is there a better way?  To that simple question, I propose a simple answer: Yes.

The simplicity begins by jettisoning the incredibly convoluted and complex COIN strategy that is wasting blood and treasure on an effort to "nation-build" Islam out of the 7th century, an exercise that escaped the colonial powers of the post-WWI era and trapped the Soviet Union in its own version of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan.

The lesson learned from history must be to do what we know to be doable and to avoid what we have learned is not. Thus, in place of nation-building in the Muslim world, the U.S. must switch to an aggressive counterterror (CT) strategy that makes maximum use of CIA/military special operations forces, increased air strikes, and even more hunter-killer drones to eradicate the jihadi leadership. These CT operations should be combined with unconventional warfare (UW) to promote civil wars that exploit the tribal, ethnic, and Sunni-Shia cleavages in Afghanistan. The British successfully blunted Islam in the Asian subcontinent through "divide and conquer." The same grievances the British exploited are still there and on display daily. 

The change in mission from COIN to CT/UW would significantly reduce the number of U.S. casualties by taking U.S. forces out of the high-risk task of population protection (with its rules of engagement that seem to sacrifice U.S. soldiers on the altar of "hearts-and-minds" that reach out in peace one day only to strap a bomb on the next) to one of our choosing when and where to fight without the need to hold static positions. The objective would change from "winning" (whatever that would mean in Afghanistan) or "building a stable Afghan nation" (an even more uncertain objective) to continually keeping al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban off-balance by assisting the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmenis, and Baluchis to make war on al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban. Such a war is something they will have to do even without us. None of these ethnic groups want to again be dominated by al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban.

While this strategy objective lacks the clarity of a date certain for departure and a defined end state, it can be maintained as long as conditions warrant, which is what is required to fight our Islamic jihadi enemy, who is in it for the long haul. It would also add what is currently lacking in our strategy (which dooms it to fail): evidence to our "allies" in Afghanistan that we are not cutting and running on them. Therefore, we will demonstrate that we all share a common commitment to a long-term objective -- prohibiting the return of al-Qaeda and Pashtun Taliban domination of Afghanistan. A "stable" Afghan government under Hamid Karzai is a losing proposition that should be carefully abandoned as inconspicuously and quickly as possible.

Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired), is Director of Military Affairs for The Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) and was adjunct professor of history at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ campus.
Many in the American conservative community have signed on to support President Obama's Afghan war strategy -- counterinsurgency (COIN) -- out of the mistaken belief that not supporting COIN would mean abandoning the main theater of war against the Islamic jihadis. But what in this situation is causing normally clear-thinking individuals to back a war strategy that is obviously on a trajectory to failure? 

To begin with, there is a legitimate concern that abandoning Afghanistan will signal a major defeat for the U.S. and the West in the broader jihad waged globally by al-Qaeda and its lookalikes, thus inviting increased jihadi aggression. This conclusion is not in dispute; history clearly shows that Islamic jihad feeds on the weakness of the non-Muslim world. When a jihad victory is achieved, jihadis see it as the consequence of the triumphal promise of Islam -- that is, Islamic domination of the world is foreordained by Allah in Quranic Sura 24:52 ("It is they that obey Allah and His Messenger, and fear Allah and do right [spreading Islam], that will triumph.")

The humbling of the superpowers, beginning with the 1979 occupation of the American embassy in Tehran (an unanswered act of war), coupled with the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in defeat, convinced the Islamic jihadis in both the Shia and Sunni sects that the time was right to renew with a vigor the 1,400-year old jihad against the non-Muslim world. The Shia Khomeinist Hezb'allah and the Sunni Salafist al-Qaeda are two of the most prominent jihadi organizations that were launched as a consequence of these superpower humiliations. They began their jihadi terror against the Western world in the 1980s, and it continues to this day.

Most conservatives and a few liberals understand the importance that the Shariah-faithful mujahideen place on the tremendous momentum to be gained by replicating the Soviet superpower debacle in Afghanistan against the U.S., the only remaining but dwindling superpower. Consequently, conservatives are prone to gladly accept any effort advanced by the Obama administration to counter the Islamic jihad, especially when it is cloaked in the alleged success of "the surge" in Iraq.

Americans, however, daily become more and more aware that the Iraq surge was oversold by President Bush and the Republicans for obvious political reasons. While initially skeptical, Democrats stopped challenging Republican surge success claims after gaining the White House so as to be able to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible, all the while proclaiming "victory" under the newly aligned war leadership of Obama-Gates. Related to this Democrat about-face was the fact that Obama had cynically adopted the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign mantra, "Afghanistan is the good war," since it appeared in 2006-2007 that the Afghan war was winding down and would require minimal warfighting in the future. It was a great campaign slogan to appear hawkish on defense, all the while criticizing the Bush conduct of the Iraq war. But the situation began to change significantly in 2008 as the Taliban reemerged as a dangerous insurgent force in the south and west of Afghanistan.

By the time Obama took office in January 2009, the Afghan war had definitely taken a turn for the worse, trapping Obama in his cynical commitment to "the good war." It appears that, being completely devoid of any will to fight or knowledge of war, Obama latched onto the conventional wisdom that COIN and the surge had won in Iraq and made them his own in desperation. In March 2009, Obama announced a "comprehensive, new strategy" and his version of a surge in Afghanistan, followed in May 2009 with the naming of General Stanley McChrystal as his new commander in Afghanistan and a reconfirmation of COIN as his strategy.

Obama, however, quickly suffered buyer's remorse when McChrystal sent his strategic plan and a request for still more troops to Obama in August 2009. Obama dithered from August until December 2009, finally giving McChrystal 10,000 troops less than he requested and setting a time certain, July 2011, as a troop withdrawal date. In spite of Obama's uncertain trumpet call to arms, conservatives flocked to line up behind him and reinforce the flagging enthusiasm for fighting the Islamic jihadis in a far-off land.

So now, with McChrystal's foot-in-mouth firing and the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus, celebrated COIN guru, in his stead, the U.S. finds itself tied to a failing COIN strategy with a commander-in-chief who has no stomach or instinct for the fight. In this gloomy and confused situation, conservatives have adopted a "Leonidas at Thermopylae"-like dedication "to stay the course" in the misguided belief that just such determination is what ultimately won the war in Iraq. Of course, the war is far from actually won in Iraq, but neither conservatives nor Democrats have the courage right now to look behind that curtain and admit the truth.

Now is the time for conservatives (and any concerned liberals) to ask: Is there a better way?  To that simple question, I propose a simple answer: Yes.

The simplicity begins by jettisoning the incredibly convoluted and complex COIN strategy that is wasting blood and treasure on an effort to "nation-build" Islam out of the 7th century, an exercise that escaped the colonial powers of the post-WWI era and trapped the Soviet Union in its own version of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan.

The lesson learned from history must be to do what we know to be doable and to avoid what we have learned is not. Thus, in place of nation-building in the Muslim world, the U.S. must switch to an aggressive counterterror (CT) strategy that makes maximum use of CIA/military special operations forces, increased air strikes, and even more hunter-killer drones to eradicate the jihadi leadership. These CT operations should be combined with unconventional warfare (UW) to promote civil wars that exploit the tribal, ethnic, and Sunni-Shia cleavages in Afghanistan. The British successfully blunted Islam in the Asian subcontinent through "divide and conquer." The same grievances the British exploited are still there and on display daily. 

The change in mission from COIN to CT/UW would significantly reduce the number of U.S. casualties by taking U.S. forces out of the high-risk task of population protection (with its rules of engagement that seem to sacrifice U.S. soldiers on the altar of "hearts-and-minds" that reach out in peace one day only to strap a bomb on the next) to one of our choosing when and where to fight without the need to hold static positions. The objective would change from "winning" (whatever that would mean in Afghanistan) or "building a stable Afghan nation" (an even more uncertain objective) to continually keeping al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban off-balance by assisting the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmenis, and Baluchis to make war on al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban. Such a war is something they will have to do even without us. None of these ethnic groups want to again be dominated by al-Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban.

While this strategy objective lacks the clarity of a date certain for departure and a defined end state, it can be maintained as long as conditions warrant, which is what is required to fight our Islamic jihadi enemy, who is in it for the long haul. It would also add what is currently lacking in our strategy (which dooms it to fail): evidence to our "allies" in Afghanistan that we are not cutting and running on them. Therefore, we will demonstrate that we all share a common commitment to a long-term objective -- prohibiting the return of al-Qaeda and Pashtun Taliban domination of Afghanistan. A "stable" Afghan government under Hamid Karzai is a losing proposition that should be carefully abandoned as inconspicuously and quickly as possible.

Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired), is Director of Military Affairs for The Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) and was adjunct professor of history at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ campus.

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