Winning in Afghanistan

Resident Fellow
Thomas Donnelly

Barack Obama is striving mightily to pass the commander-in-chief test by proposing that U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq, where we are on the verge of a decisive victory against al Qaeda and Iran's "special group" proxies, and reinforce the NATO mission in Afghanistan, where at best we're only holding our own. Setting aside the timeless military wisdom that great captains reinforce success, it's instructive to compare Obama's plan for Afghanistan with that of his rival, John McCain.

Obama is not aiming to win, but to "finish" the war. . . . McCain seems less interested in "finishing" the war than winning it.

First, the Obama approach, as outlined in his "New Strategy for a New World" speech today: redeploy two additional U.S. combat brigades into Afghanistan, get greater contributions and fewer restrictions from our NATO partners, accelerate the training of Afghan security forces, "invest in alternative livelihoods to poppy-growing," bolster the Karzai government and pressure the government of Pakistan to pacify the Pashtun tribal belts along the border. Nothing wrong with any of this--although "standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people" is no substitute for some very tough love directed at the Pakistani army--but a little underwhelming for a "war we must win" that Obama argues is the real central front in the Long War. Obama is not aiming to win, but to "finish" the war.

By contrast, the McCain approach, as outlined in brief remarks this morning: three brigades, not two. A clear counterinsurgency strategy, modeled on the success of the surge in Iraq (a method that Obama still contends is a failure). A coherent campaign plan, synchronizing not just military but U.S. and NATO civilian efforts as well, again modeled on the plan devised by Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker in Baghdad. A request not just for more troops and fewer caveats from NATO, but a demand for unity of command. An accompanying Afghan surge, doubling the size of the Afghan National Army--not only a proven fighting force but the one true expression of Afghan nationalism and the most competent institution of the Kabul government. McCain seems less interested in "finishing" the war than winning it.

The differences are not small ones, and reflect a distinction between the kind of staff-driven, laundry-list mush that sees the immensity of a problem and a leader-driven set of priorities that sees a solution. It is the distinction between Obama's opposition to the Iraq surge and McCain's support for it: not just the courage to make the tough choice, but the clarity to follow the right course. It's also the distinction between winning the war and simply ending it.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

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