How not to fight a war

McClatchy has a long, pessimistic piece about the war in Afghanistan. It begins with a conversation between Gen. McChrystal and an aide. McChrystal is lamenting the situation in Marjah.

Aide: You’ve got to be patient, we’ve only been here 90 days.
McChrystal: How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?
Aide: I can’t tell you sir.
McChrystal: I’m telling you. We don’t have as many days as we’d like.

In this conversation, as reported by McClatchy, McChrystal is being diplomatic. The issue isn’t the number of days before support from the international community runs out; the issue, as the remainder of the McClatchy article makes clear, is the number of days before support from the Obama adminstration expires.
That number isn’t uncertain. Under President Obama’s announced timetable, McChrystal has 13 months before the president begins bringing the troops home. Nor is there any indication that Obama plans to alter this timetable. Earlier in the month, he stated: “I am confident that we’re going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame.”
Only a modern-day techocrat or lawyer could believe that it makes sense to fight wars pursuant to timetables, and to be “constantly” discussing withdrawal while the fight heats up. As the McClatchy story points out, “the tension between political and military timetables [is] apparent” as Obama’s withdrawal plans “collide with the realities of the war.”
Consider the situation in Marjah. Our military campaign, designed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from their spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar province, is faltering in large part because we cannot persuade the Afghans in the area to side with the government against the Taliban. This, in turn, is due in part to threats by the Taliban to kill residents who cooperate with the U.S. and the government. That threat is entirely credible, given the fact that we plan to begin withdrawing in about a year. If the U.S. were more committed, the threat would be far less credible.
The president’s timetable also gives the new British government, which has no more desire to be fighting in Afghanistan than Obama does, a pretext for excusing itself from the fight at a time of its choosing. Thus, William Hague, the new foreign secretary, told the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan, “I don’t think setting a deadline helps anybody; so much of what we’re doing in Afghanistan, setting targets for people then to jump through hoops towards, doesn’t help them in their work.”
Mark Sedwill, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and NATO’s current representative there, was more direct:

If there are politicians anywhere in the alliance who are making a judgment that we shouldn’t have gone for the surge unless we could have been confident by the end of 2010 it would all look completely different, then we shouldn’t have gone for the surge, because that was never practical,”

After dithering throughout much of 2009, Obama may well have delivered a plan for Afghanistan that “was never practical.”

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