War is a mystic business. Mystic because there seems some supernatural quality required for agreement on strategy. September 11, 2001, defined a moment – a moment of political cohesion. Pearl Harbor served that role in WWII. The Lusitania was the protagonist in WWI. The battleship Maine served the focal point of the Spanish American War of 1898 – resulting in the rise of T. R. Roosevelt. War is not taken lightly by the American people – and that is how it should be. The politics of war requires a defining moment, a rallying point, a catalyst of immediacy. The problem with a momentary political catalyst rests in durability.
Even such a staggering and tragic event as the attack on America in 2001 seems to have had limited sustaining energy. We can argue that Bush diverted the military attention to an unjust war in Iraq – deflating the balloon of public support. We can argue that the loosely defined enemy of ‘terrorism’ cannot sustain public attention. We can argue that Defense Secretary Rumsfield blundered around with high-tech solutions that ignored the human cost of war and peace. There is merit in each of these debates – and all contribute to the current political climate – but the politics of war is much more complicated than pundits suggest.
After Vietnam the U. S. Military leadership intentionally reduced the standing force of the ‘regular military.’ The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war gave further opportunities for regular force reduction. The restructuring of the military was as much political in nature as it was a military strategy. The idea of the top military brass was to center the force strength in the reserves and State National Guard Units. Any significant use of force (such as Vietnam) would require a President to intentionally call up the reserves, resulting in significant political pressure. It seems like politicians can make the Military seem quite incompetent – and the Military brass is very aware of this. The reserve strategy was intended to cause a President to pause a moment before acting.
So here we are today, mid-2010, with a major shift in command in the Afghanistan War. This is not Obama’s War. While Iraq belongs in the political domain of George W. Bush, Afghanistan continues to belong to Osama Bin Laden. We must remember why we are there – President Obama did not start this fight – but it seems he is determined to finish it. So where exactly are we?
Iraq was a war of foreign insurgents combating the American run government. Patraeus and others in the Leavenworth Military Think Tank wrote the book on counter insurgency – Patraeus was put in charge in Iraq – and the result seems to be favorable to Western Democracy. Afghanistan is somewhat different. The Taliban is but one form of insurgency. There are a number of Afghan tribes fighting for their own brand of control. Foreign nationals make up a much smaller problem than they did in Iraq. But this: The Taliban in Afghanistan sanctioned Al Quaeda, sanctioned Bin Laden, sanctioned training camps, sanctioned the attack on American on September 11, 2001.
While the specifics of insurgency are different than in Iraq – the specifics of Afghanistan government sponsored terrorism are quite clear. The manual for counterinsurgency developed by Patraeus and his buddies in Kansas might have to add a chapter addressing the nature of the Afghan insurgency.
President Obama faces mounting political problems with his Afghanistan strategy. The shock of 911 has long worn off. The liberal left has returned to their fundamentalist position as anti-war ding-a-lings. The radical right is hoping for a political failure in an old worn out war that is not producing results. President Obama silenced many of the right wing critics by appointing Patraeus as the Commander-In-Charge-Of-Saving-The-World. The left wing continues to circle their whining wagons of a fairy tale world.
Politics has joined forces with the Military leadership – they are in the same boat. Success or failure in Afghanistan will dramatically affect the image of both Obama and Patraeus. These two should see themselves as allies – their strategies may differ but the goal of success is paramount in the immediate and historical evaluation of their careers.
This writer is one who supported the election of President Obama. Obama consistently said the proper war was in Afghanistan – not in Iraq. I agreed with that idea during the election and I continue to believe that we must help stabilize that critical part of a troubled world.
We may or may not like decisions made by the Bush Administration – but we are where we are. We cannot continue to whine about what should have been done – we have to take this bull by the horns and wrestle him to the ground. Patraeus knows about bull wrestling. Obama knows about rodeo audiences. Together they can be a powerful force for the future stability of the world politic.