One Step Forward,
One Step Back

by , July 08, 2009

According to the July 3 Cleveland Plain Dealer, President Barack Obama said something very interesting last week. He told the AP that he has "a very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests" in Afghanistan. "And that is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack Americans."

Well. If his words were reported accurately and he really means them, President Obama may have built the golden bridge we need to get out. That definition of success may be attainable.

But here’s the rub. Adoption of a realistic strategic goal in Afghanistan means reversing a decision the administration reportedly made last March, at Hillary’s insistence. Hillary demanded, and reportedly got, a commitment to the opium dream of a "secular, democratic, peaceful" Afghanistan.

Has President Obama already figured out he was had by the Clintons? Will he dare assert his authority over Hillary? How long will he stick to his guns when the Clintons ramp up a guerilla campaign against him among Democratic activists?

As I said in my last column, problems in court politics are often more difficult than problems on the battlefield. Dumping the Clinton’s dreamy-eyed idealism in foreign policy in favor of realistic strategic objectives promises a battle royal at court. Of course, Obama may have just been musing aloud, in which case Hillary will soon set the record straight. But if the president really meant what he said and sticks to it, it will represent a major step forward.

Unfortunately, the July 4 Plain Dealer reported another step back. In a story on the Marine Corps’ "big push" in Helmand province, the paper said that

The stiffest resistance occurred in the district of Garmser, where Taliban fighters holed up in a walled housing compound engaged in an eight-hour gun battle with troops from the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment. The Marines eventually requested a Harrier fighter jet to drop a 500-pound bomb on the compound, which was believed to have killed all fighters inside.

This time, the problem was not Americans failing to understand that in 4GW, air strikes work to our defeat. The PD continued,

"The commanders directing the huge Marine security operation here had said they hoped not to rely on air strikes. … Officers here noted with pride that they had not used bombs or artillery in the first 24 hours of the mission.

"But they were left with little choice after the insurgents refused to surrender."

It is hard to question the details of a tactical situation from half a world away, based on a press report. There may be reasons I cannot see from here why the air strike was unavoidable. But from what was reported, it seems to have resulted from an all-too-frequent problem with American infantry, a narrow tactical repertoire that offers few options.

Anybody out there ever hear of a siege? That housing compound might not have had infinite supplies of food or water. Must we be in such a hurry to resolve every situation that sieges are not an option? They are, after all, one of the oldest techniques in war (read the Iliad).

Just how sure are we that the guys we killed were Taliban? Yes, they were shooting at us. But lots of Afghans do that. Local Pashtuns will fight us just because we’re there. If we kill locals in an air strike, we create a blood feud with all their relatives.

Did anyone try to talk to those guys? A siege opens that opportunity. It also gives us a chance to talk to other locals and try to find out who we are fighting. Remember, the Taliban (if they were Taliban) is not a monolithic organization. Like almost all 4GW forces, it is a militia. Militias will often deal.

Ah, the Marines will reply, we told you they refused to surrender. Should surrender or death be our opponents’ only options? Whoever it was we were fighting put up what one Marine commander called "a hell of a fight." No Americans were killed in the process. So why not let them march out with the honors of war? That would tell the Pashtun that we are men of honor who respect other men of honor. Not a bad message to send when going into a new 4GW neighborhood.

I know many Marines will sniff at this, quoting their favorite line, "No better friend, no worse enemy." In response, I suggest a modification for 4GW: we should add the option "No better enemy." "Better" in this context does not mean "easy." Rather, it means "honorable." Against an opponent such as the Pashtun, whose culture puts a high value on honor, being an honorable enemy may be important when it comes time to talk.

In turn, if Marines are to be seen by the Pashtun as an honorable enemy, we may want to reconsider slaughtering those who have fought bravely with weapons such as air strikes against which they have no defense. "Better enemies" respect their enemies, and themselves, too much to do that sort of thing.

Read more by William S. Lind