Despite some questions, Obama’s Afghan policy is sound

President Obama’s Afghanistan policy raises some serious questions (more on those in a moment), but to see why it has a decent chance of working, it helps to visit the town of Nawa in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley. I was there in October and found that 1,000 Marines who had arrived during the summer had already made substantial strides.

When the Marines got there, Nawa was practically a ghost town.

“It was strangled by the Taliban,” Lt. Col. William McCollough, the boyish commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, told me. “Anyone who was here was beaten, taxed, intimidated.”

The Marines provided security, and the town sprang back to life, with schools opening, shops doing a bustling business and trucks bringing in goods. The residents of Nawa, like most Afghans, were happy to be free of the Taliban and their theocratic decrees.

But McCollough cautioned that the progress was as fragile as an eggshell. In particular, he worried about the dark pull exerted by Marjah, less than 10 miles away. A town of 50,000 people, Marjah has long been a haven of opium smugglers and insurgents who terrorize the surrounding area.


Commanders at Camp Leatherneck, the headquarters of 10,000 Marines operating in Helmand province, realize that it is essential to take Marjah, just as it was essential to take Fallouja and Ramadi in Iraq. But they also know -- or rather they knew when I visited -- that they didn’t have enough infantry to achieve that objective. They were spread thin just trying to consolidate gains in towns such as Nawa.

President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan changes the equation. The first reinforcements will be Marines headed for Helmand -- and a likely showdown in Marjah. There will be hard fighting ahead, just as there was last summer when Marines entered Nawa and other Taliban strongholds. But with enough resources and enough patience, there is little doubt that American troops and their Afghan allies will be able to secure key areas of southern Afghanistan that have slipped out of the government’s grasp.

Then they can begin the hard work of building Afghan government capacity -- a process that has already started in Nawa, where the district governor is working closely with the Marines to provide essential services to the people. Local merchants are even taking the initiative to string power lines, previously nonexistent in this impoverished community.

The questions that remain unanswered after the president’s West Point address: Will the troops have the time and resources needed to win? “Win” is a word that Obama avoided. He cited his long-standing goal of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies,” but he spoke merely of his desire to “break the Taliban’s momentum” rather than defeat it altogether. He spoke of wanting to “end this war successfully” but said nothing of winning the war.

Nor did he endorse nation-building, even though the only way that Afghanistan will ever be secure is if we build a state capable of policing its own territory. He did say we “must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government,” which sounds a bit like nation-building, but then he also promised that he would not make an open-ended troop commitment, “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

The most problematic part of Obama’s policy is his pledge to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. Getting 30,000 troops into Afghanistan is a difficult logistical challenge. It will be a major achievement if all of them are in place by July 2010. That will give them only one year to reverse many years of Taliban gains before their own numbers start to dwindle. That may or may not be sufficient. The “surge” in Iraq had a big impact within a year, but the U.S. had made a much bigger commitment to Iraq pre-surge than it has in Afghanistan.

The good part of the deadline is that it presumably means we will be spared another agonizing White House review for at least another year. That’s no small thing, given that Obama first unveiled an Afghan strategy on March 27, and less than six months later launched another drawn-out and very public reappraisal.

The worrisome part of the deadline is that it may signal a lack of resolve that emboldens our enemies. If Afghanistan is indeed a “vital national interest,” as Obama said, why announce an exit strategy? Perhaps he is trying to head off criticism from his liberal supporters. If so, his gambit hasn’t worked, but it has worried supporters of the war effort, who must continue to wonder about the president’s level of commitment.

Obama tried to address this concern by saying, “We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,” thereby suggesting that perhaps the July 2011 deadline isn’t so firm after all. But if it’s not a real deadline, why mention it at all?

That is only one of many ambiguities that Obama must address in the months ahead. He must keep the war effort front and center, which he failed to do after unveiling his previous Afghanistan policy in March. He should speak of the importance of winning -- that word that has so far been AWOL -- to keep up morale on the home front and to break the enemy’s will to resist.

But for all the problems of the West Point address, the policy he announced is sound. It is essentially the strategy that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his team of advisors developed this summer for a comprehensive counterinsurgency -- yet another word Obama avoided, oddly enough. The president isn’t providing quite as many troops as McChrystal would like, but, counting allies’ contributions, there probably will be enough to secure key population centers.

At the same time, our troops must work to build up Afghanistan’s security forces. Yet another missing element in Obama’s speech was the lack of a specific commitment to expand the Afghan security forces, but there is little doubt that this is our only responsible exit strategy. Before the Afghans can take the lead, however, our troops must first reduce the enemy’s toughest strongholds. That process begins in Marjah.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion.