McCain and Lieberman on Afghanistan

John McCain and Joe Lieberman are teaming up to stiffen our spines again.  In their latest Washington Post editorial, they preemptively warn against flagging public resolve to finish what we started in Afghanistan.  It’s worth a read.

I’d like to know who their national security advisor is, because he has excellent insight.  He hit the crucial lesson of Iraq right on the head with this passage:

A narrow, short-term focus on counterterrorism, by contrast, would repeat the mistakes made for years in Iraq before the troop surge, with the same catastrophic consequences. Before 2007 in Iraq, U.S. Special Forces had complete freedom of action to strike at terrorist leaders, backed by more than 120,000 conventional American forces and overwhelming air power. Although we succeeded in killing countless terrorists — including the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the insurgency continued to grow in strength and violence. It was not until we changed course and applied a new approach — a counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing basic security for the people and improving their lives — that the cycle of violence was at last broken.

I was a part of that Special Forces effort in Iraq.  Most of us realized the basic futility of what we were trying to do.  After spending several years killing cockroaches with golden hammers, it was readily apparent we were never going to kill more of “Johnny Jihad” than the enemy could produce.  Further, we could see that our conventional combat forces did not have a viable operational concept to achieve our strategic objectives.  Purposefully isolated on large bases, our forces were unable to dominate the environment or protect the population.  We ceeded the high ground to the enemy, and he used it to hammer us with IEDs on our exposed supply routes.  It was the classic counterinsurgency dillema, and we played our role to the hilt.

By 2006, I had lost faith in the ability of my military leadership to recognize our situation and devise a way out.  Along with many fellow military professionals, my private feelings swung against continuing the war.  I saw no way to win, and daily observed the human cost as hapless soldiers rolled up and down highways in heavily armored convoys, hoping to survive the IED attacks they could not predict or prevent.  Any soldier worth his salt understands the concept and importance of initiative.  If the enemy chooses where and when to initiate contact, then you don’t have it, and you can’t win without it. 

But of course all that is history now, a history changed by the emergence of leaders like Generals Petraeus and Odierno, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.  Petraeus has received just acclaim for turning around our strategy, but Odierno deserves equal or greater credit for the moral courage it took to buck his susperiors and bypass the chain of command.  Nobody will say it, but his son’s loss of an arm had to be a decisive factor in his actions.  Thank God for character.  And Crocker deserves his share of the victory parade too; he was instrumental in reversing State Department policies that prevented reconciliation.

It’s easy to forget now, but in late 2006 virtually our entire political and military establishment was unitied in a similar consensus that it was time to get out of Iraq.  Only a few brave leaders stood and yelled “Stop!”, or worked behind the scenes to reverse our collective movement to give up.  McCain and Lieberman, Odierno, GEN(ret) Keane, Cheney, and Bush formed the core of that group, and somehow they saved us from unrecoverable error in Iraq.  Say what you will, but McCain and Lieberman both put themselves at great political risk with their stance.  Lieberman was basically drummed out of his party for his efforts.

So now we find ourselves approaching the same place again in Afghanistan.  We knew it would come to this.  The left’s emphasis on Afghanistan as the “must-win” war would only last as long as it was tactically useful for them to do so.  As soon as possible, they would turn against our efforts there too.  It is happening now, and that is why McCain and Lieberman have fired this shot across our collective bow.

It is crucial that we learn and apply the correct lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan.  Crucial, but not guaranteed.  When we went into Iraq, we thought we had the central lesson of Afghanistan figured out: minimize our presence to avoid inflaming the locals.  But that lesson ultimately proved wrong in Afghanistan, and was almost our immediate undoing in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

It is very important that we not let the Obama administration wriggle off the hook on the central truth of counterinsurgency:  there are no magic shortcuts.  There is only hard, long, slow, bloody, dirty effort, which in the end is the only way to achieve our goals, and to win.  That is why this article by McCain and Lieberman is important.  It clearly states the central truth.  There is no easy way.

In particular, we must avoid the temptation of the Special Forces “Silver Bullet” fantasy.  Democrats are particularly enamored of this delusion, that a small, skilled, precise force of Special Operators can achieve our aims with minimal blood and expense.  This wishful thinking almost never works out.  Special Operations are at best a supporting effort, and cannot change the security situation on the ground in any large battlefield.  Only masses of ground troops, fighting and dying in the mud, can do that.

As the year progresses, watch carefully for promises from Obama to fight the war in Afghanistan smarter, not harder.  Watch particularly closely for promises based on getting Bin Ladin with “commandos” or Special Operations.  News flash:  we’ve been doing that for 8 years and it hasn’t worked.  There are no short cuts.