AEI and Afghanistan: Listen to Petraeus!

AEI and Afghanistan: Listen to Petraeus!

AEI and Afghanistan: Listen to Petraeus!


Across the left and among progressives, there is angst about President Obama’s decision to add 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. Among neoconservatives and the right — judging from a session that I attended yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute — there is angst of another kind. They’re worried that Afghanistan is a “war that we may walk away from,” as Danielle Pletka, AEI’s vice president for foreign defense policy studies put it. And they’re very worried that the Obama administration doesn’t have the stomach to pursue “victory” there. Lets hope they’re right.

True, Obama said he’s ordering the dispatch of 17,000 troops to bolster the 36,000 US forces already in country. But there’s lots of room for a new policy to emerge, since virtually every part of the US national security apparatus is conducting a review of the war, including one led at the White House by Bruce Riedel, who served as Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan-Pakistan during the campaign. There are few doves doing the reviews, but it isn’t at all clear that they’ll endorse the “long war” strategy pushed by General McKiernan, the US commander in Afghanistan, who’s predicting that he’ll need tens of thousands more troops who’ll have to fight a war that might last five years or more. And, at AEI at least, there is great concern that the left and anti-war Democrats will convince Obama not to fight that war.

First to speak at AEI was Tom Donnelly, the thinktank’s top defense analyst and former deputy executive director of the Project for a New American Century. (PNAS, of course, was the hawkish combine that pushed hard for the war in Iraq in the 1990s, with the backing of Dick Cheney, Doug Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz.) Donnelly complained that public opinion and “elite opinion” are rapidly shifting against the war. The notion that Afghanistan is “Obama’s Vietnam” is gaining currency, spreading from the left into the mainstream media. And he noted that polls show that only 34 percent of Americans support an escalation in Afghanistan, while an equal number supports getting out. The war will be a “critical test for Barack Obama,” he said, who will be “tested by the hard-core left in the Democratic Party.”

Donnelly also slammed the Obama team for “the dumbing down of Afghanistan strategy.” He was sharply critical of reports that the administration is planning to announce limited goals in the war, breaking with the Bush administration’s plans for imposing democracy and American-style values on that ultraconservative state. He criticized Obama for the apparently unpardonable sin of wanting ” to reclaim a larger role for the White House and civilian decision-making” on war, seemingly alarmed that the military, and General Petraeus in particular, won’t be getting carte blanche. Donnelly also doesn’t like the idea of using diplomacy, economic development, and other aspects of US influence. “This administration has a theory of smart power, which is an attempt to demilitarize policy,” he said. The civilians at the Defense Department, he said, seem to have “no clear commitment to victory in Afghanistan.”

Donnelly said that the 17,000 troops Obama has authorized are only a “down payment” for a much larger force needed to win.

Next up was Gary Schmitt, AEI’s director of advanced strategic studies and, from 1997 to 2005, the executive director of the Project for a New American Century. Schmitt’s focus was NATO, and he bemoaned that aside from the US, the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands, our allies aren’t willing to fight. They’re just doing their alliance duty, he said. “Most of our allies are there because they think it’s a good thing to do for the alliance,” he said. “They’re not dedicated to the idea of Afghanistan as a key strategic mission.” Still, their role is useful, he noted, since if they left they’d be hard to replace with US forces. And it is good for NATO. “Fifteen years ago, you’d get a big belly laugh if you said that today they [NATO] would be involved in a ground war in Asia.”

The final speaker was Fred Kagan, one of the principal architects of the 2007-2008 surge in Iraq and a former professor of military history who is now a resident scholar at AEI. Like Donnelly, Kagan was upset at what appear to be efforts by Obama and Co. to “define success down,” that is, to come up with drastically limited goals for the war. He ridiculed what he called “Holbookian hyperventilating” about how hard the task in Afghanistan is, referring to Obama envoy Richard Holbrooke’s recent comments that the Afghan war is a lot harder than Iraq.

Most importantly, perhaps, Kagan slammed those who believe that solving the Afghan crisis means dealing with Pakistan and viewing the war in a regional context that includes India, Iran, and other countries. That’s likely to be the core of Obama’s strategy, but Kagan was having none of it. “I question the truism that success in Afghanistan is contingent on success in Pakistan,” he said.

They key question, said Kagan, is whether Obama will do what Petraeus wants, or will he listen to those pesky liberals and critics. “Is President Obama going to listen to the military commander who turned one war [Iraq] around. or is he going to listen to other advice?”

To make sure that Obama does the right thing, according to AEI’s catechism, next week the thinktank is bringing in none other than John McCain, according to Pletka, who will speak at AEI. It appears that McCain — who, umm, lost decisively to Obama — will take a strong stand for AEI-style victory in Iraq, making a frontal challenge to the Obama administration as a sort of official spokesman for the hawks.

Here’s AEI’s breathless preview of McCain’s appearance next Wednesday:

The narrative of last year’s U.S. presidential election focused on two different wars: in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democratic candidates, including President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton, argued that the Iraq war had distracted from the more important fight in Afghanistan. Now in office, President Obama finds his administration at the center of a hot debate on the future of the war in Afghanistan, and the United States at a strategic crossroads.

Will the Obama administration support a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan designed to achieve meaningful long-term stability, or will success be defined in much more limited terms, saving the United States from a difficult reassessment and retooling for which there is little appetite? Most importantly, can the U.S. mission–with or without additional troops–succeed without a new strategy on the ground that confronts the growing Afghan insurgency?

Three and a half years after his seminal AEI address on “Winning the War in Iraq,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) will deliver a major policy address at AEI on the path to victory in Afghanistan.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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