In Afghanistan, Do What We Must

Lawrence Korb argues that it’s time we prioritized operations in Afghanistan over Iraq before the situation deteriorates further.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addresses troops during his visit to the Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan earlier this year. (AP/Jason Reed)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addresses troops during his visit to the Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan earlier this year. (AP/Jason Reed)

Here we go again. Newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen explained on December 11, 2007 that he and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were ignoring General Dan McNeill’s urgent request for 50,000 more troops in Afghanistan and allowing the situation to deteriorate because, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.”

Now as the security situation in Afghanistan continues to go downhill, Secretary Gates said on August 13, 2009 that he wants the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stan McChrystal, to ask for what he thinks he needs in the way of troops, but he still believes that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq remains a limiting factor on any additional deployments.

Not only are Gates and Mullen’s positions strategically unsound—they are the exact opposite of what President Barack Obama said during the campaign. If the United States does not have enough troops to wage two wars, why would we give priority to Iraq over Afghanistan? The war in Iraq was a war of choice, as Ted Sorensen correctly noted, “a mindless, needless, senseless war,” but Afghanistan is a war of necessity. Even President George W. Bush admitted that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States.

There was never any credible evidence that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons or had ties to Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda did not come into Iraq until after we began our occupation. By the time we invaded in 2003, Saddam Hussein was contained and growing weaker by the day, and neither NATO nor the U.N. thought our actions were legally or morally justified. Invading Iraq 18 months after September 11th made as much sense as invading fascist Spain after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Moreover, the Iraqi people opposed our presence from day one, and would not agree to a status of forces agreement that did not set specific dates for our troops to withdraw from their cities and their country. When our forces withdrew to their bases by June 30, 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a national holiday to commemorate evicting the foreign invaders.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is a war of necessity. Our only choice after the Taliban refused to stop providing a safe haven and support for Al Qaeda was to go after those responsible for the attacks of September 11th. Both NATO and the U.N. supported this war, and nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan’s people initially welcomed the Americans with open arms.

Candidate Obama was correct in calling Iraq an unnecessary war and promising to give priority to Afghanistan. He made a good start shortly after taking office by sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and setting a date to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq. But he should not let “troop needs” in Iraq remain a limiting factor on sending more forces to Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq was a diversion from the real threat to our security, and for all practical purposes our role in Iraq was over once our forces withdrew to their bases. A top American advisor to the Iraqis, Colonel Timothy R. Reese, put it well when he wrote a secret memo to his bosses that asserted that the June 30 deadline was a watershed moment and that the United States should declare victory and go home. Staying longer will do little to improve Iraqi military performance and will fuel growing resentment of American troops.

It is time for President Obama to tell the Pentagon that it is in Afghanistan that we do what we must, and in Iraq that we do what we can. If we had done that in 2007, the Taliban would not be controlling so much of Afghanistan, Pakistan would be more stable, and Iraq would be just as it is today: a factionalized state whose leaders still have not made the compromises necessary to share political and economic power and where security forces still are loyal to their tribes or sect rather than the nation. Peter, Paul and Mary put it well when they warned us some 40 years ago, “when will they ever learn?”

For more information about strategy in Afghanistan, see:

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow