Stuck, with no quick and easy fix on the horizon.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in U.S. history, outlasting the Vietnam War just this year. The current conflict began in late 2001, following the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The United States rightly launched an attack on Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist regime in power had allowed terrorists to plot the attack in the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century.
Overthrowing the Taliban as the country’s ruler was relatively easy. So was capturing members of al-Qaida and putting the rest on the run.
The hard part came after the U.S. forces had destroyed the old leadership in the central Asian country. Afghanistan is a nation that has defied centralized government, particularly from forces outside the region. The British learned this lesson last century, as did the Soviets following their 1979 invasion.
How do we rebuild Afghanistan? How can a stable and peaceful democracy replace the line of despotic and/or corrupt rulers?
In considering these questions, the modern lesson of Vietnam hangs over the head of U.S. presidents: Don’t get bogged down in a war without a clear goal for victory.
The United States has tried. In fact, it’s tried many plans, though none with roaring success. We could say that for every year of the war, we’ve had a different strategy in Afghanistan. Spot all these planners points for the difficulty of their task. Reinventing an undeveloped nation whose tribal-based population is largely unfamiliar with modernity and democracy isn’t something done quickly.
The latest is President Obama’s plan to mimic the Iraqi surge strategy by increasing the number of troops into Afghanistan for a short period in hopes of stabilizing the chaos.
And here enters Gen. McChrystal. His remarks to a Rolling Stone reporter were critical of Obama and his team and parts of its plan. The general is a highly skilled and dedicated soldier, but his criticism of the commander in chief crossed the line.
“This is a change in personnel,” Obama said Wednesday in announcing McChrystal was out and Gen. David Petraeus was in, “but not a change in policy.”
Of course, the nation’s policies in Afghanistan deserve a critical examination. The Obama administration hopes the situation on the ground will be calm enough to start withdrawing troops in a year. The plans given U.S. efforts thus far this year appear shortsighted and unrealistic.
Petraeus, who was McChrystal’s boss, is well-qualified for his new post in Afghanistan. He, too, is a talented and intelligent commander.
Meanwhile, the nation needs a reality lesson. Turning things around in Afghanistan will require a dedicated effort far beyond the space of one four-year presidential term or several, even.