July 17, 2008

Is Afghanistan the Exit Strategy?

Yesterday I blogged on Afghanistan as a kind of ?good war? for Democrats? it?s not quite as good as Iraq is bad, but then antiwar liberals are basically content with Obama ?ending the war in Iraq? by redeploying the troops to the land of the Afghans.

Taking a quick look at McCain?s foreign-policy statement from yesterday (video, transcript), I?m beginning to wonder whether the Arizona senator might have a similar exit strategy in mind:

It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. It is by applying the tried and true principles of counter-insurgency used in the surge?which Senator Obama opposed—that we will win in Afghanistan. With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how to win wars. And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.

It?s easy to read this as McCain simply loving on war?the more troops better, total victory at whatever cost, a surge everywhere etc. etc. However, such a reading overlooks one of the contradictions at the heart of the surge strategy?it was always about building up to draw down.

As Andrew Bacevich stresses in his two major articles on the surge,

It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on. In a letter to the soldiers serving under his command, released just prior to the congressional hearings [last September], Petraeus asserted that coalition forces had ?achieved tactical momentum and wrestled the initiative from our enemies.? ?[S]urely the imperative of the moment is to redouble the current level of effort so as to preserve that initiative and to deny the enemy the slightest chance to adjust, adapt, or reconstitute.
Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite.

The rhetoric of the surge was all about ?doing what it takes,? but its planners understood that high troop levels were simply unsustainable (barring the politically impossible draft), and in the back of their minds they no doubt understood that the U.S. would have to get out of that hopeless situation sooner or later. 

Last week, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki floated the idea of a timetable withdrawal of U.S. troops (it’s pretty unlikelythat he has the political power to make any demands, however.)

But then regardless of the opinion of the PM, a drawdown is happening anyway. Before January, as many as 3 of the 15 combat brigades will be gone; total troop levels might be reduced by as much as 30% (from 170,000 to 120,000). This trend seems likely to continue.

What?s important in all this is that neither Obama nor McCain want a withdrawal from Iraq to entail a shrinking of the overall U.S. military presence abroad?to the contrary. Thus it?s beginning to look like the McCain?s exit strategy leads to Afghanistan.

As McCain works hard to depict Obama as ?retreating? in Iraq and Obama paints McCain as ?entrenched,? we can be sure that what is actually happening will probably never get much discussion time in the fall.   


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