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USS Jason Dunham

Why are we still in Afghanistan?

That's a fair question and I think it's also fair to say the reasons have evolved since the Horse Soldiers rode toward Kabul with the Northern Alliance almost 8 years ago. That is an exceptional amount of time for us to be in armed conflict in one area, unprecedented actually. So we must have some damn good reasons for doing so. I think it is especially important to lay out the rationale for any continued action in the area as we are about to enter round II of battle with the Cut & Run caucus. The same folks who (quite wrongly) counseled retreat and eventual defeat in Iraq are gearing up for another Vietnamization, this time of the argument about Afghanistan. There is a weak piece in Politico attempting just this:

With the war in Afghanistan in its eighth year, with deaths and casualties mounting and with no so-called victory in sight, perhaps it is time to recall the words of the late Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt).

Back in 1966, with the country tangled in the war in Vietnam, Aiken suggested that we declare victory and bring our troops home.

There is a segment of the left that is fundamentally mired in the quagmire that is their thinking on any war. They seem to believe that absent a direct threat to the sovereignty and safety of the United States, there is no justification for fighting. I will stick with Von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of policy (diplomacy) by other means. Diplomatic solutions occasionally come about when two entities find a mutually advantageous agreement, but also quite often it is the knowledge that there is an iron fist in that velvet glove which nudges things along. For that threat of force to be useful it must be credible that it would be used and effective if put into play. That was one of the reasons defeat in Iraq was intolerable. It would have destroyed the deterrent factor that American expeditionary power provides. Worse yet it would have emboldened both al Qaeda and Iran.

We entered the fight in Afghanistan with easily understood and justifiable cause. The initial phases of the war went extremely well and constituted one of the most impressive and effective uses of Special Ops in history. We routed the Taliban and swept them from power along with their foreign friends al Qaeda. They died when they stood to fight but those who didn't headed across the border to Pakistan. At this point we could have packed up and headed home. There is a strong argument to be made that once we had removed al Qaeda's safe haven and the government that gave it to them, we were done. Rubble doesn't make trouble, to wax Derbyshirean.

But we didn't leave and we began a larger project to bring democracy to the country and over the next several years that happened with a Constitution and elections in 2004. The problem was that while Afghanistan was democratizing, across the border Pakistan was ceding rule of large swaths of it's tribal areas to Islamist extremists. This facilitated the reconstitution, refitting, recruiting and rearming of a new collection of Taliban and al Qaeda affiliated fighters who wanted nothing more than a chance to cross back into Afghanistan and add the US to the long list of foreign invaders they had run out of the country. In 2006 the Pakistanis had washed their hands of the troubled provinces and territories where ther extremists flourished and the jihadis had begun full scale re-infiltration back into Afghanistan. They came in larger numbers than any time since 2001 and they were able to effectively seize large areas where the US and Afghan forces were not deployed and did not have the numbers to control.

2007 and 2008 saw some of the fiercest fighting we had encountered as these new insurgents moved closer to population centers and felt strong enough to engage with us force on force (see Wanat). They have been fighting the classic guerrilla warfare scenario that has driven every occupier out and have dominated the populace into allowing or tacitly supporting their operations. While we have had significant success in killing large numbers of their fighters, the kinetic operations we used to do so gained us no ground in the battle for hearts and minds. Too many civilians have died next to the insurgents and that has created plenty of bad blood with tribes who specialize in long grudges.

Now with a new strategy and more troops we have begun to attempt to shift that paradigm. Gen. McChrystal's tactical directive is a tangible sign of that and the over all conduct of our operations now focuses on securing the population and denying the insurgents havens in Afghanistan. This is a long war methodology and will be difficult to maintain against the voices for retreat. But again the alternative is defeat by extremists and the loss of a credible threat of force projection to aid our diplomatic efforts worldwide. Even worse would be the rise in Pakistan of extremist elements allied to these new victorious Islamist warriors and the possibility of that state failing. Their nuclear weapons are supposed to be secure with contingencies to cover such a situation, but somehow that doesn't seem all that reassuring.

So brace for another information war during the 2010 election cycle as the trumpeters of quagmire sound forth. President Obama may have campaigned with some lively rhetoric about Afghanistan and Pakistan, but there will be considerable opposition from his own party and we will have to see if he will stay the course or cut and run.