Chairman Kerry: Testing Afghanistan Assumptions
The lesson of Vietnam is don't commit troops without a clear strategy
, D.C. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) authored the following op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal titled "Testing Afghanistan Assumptions."
The full text of the op-ed is below:
Testing Afghanistan Assumptions
By John Kerry
September 28, 2009
In the coming weeks, President Barack Obama will make the most difficult choice a commander in chief can face: whether to send more troops into harm's way.
The challenge of making the right decision was dramatized recently by the grim disclosure that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has warned that unless he gets more troops the eight-year war there "will likely result in failure."
The general provided a bleak catalogue of misaligned military operations, a corrupt Afghan government, and an increasingly lethal insurgency. He wants more troops and civilians to execute a nation-building counterinsurgency strategy that he hopes will reverse the slide. He says success is still achievable. As the commander on the ground, Gen. McChrystal fulfilled his assignment from the president, producing a tightly reasoned blueprint for a complex and increasingly dangerous conflict.
Now, we in Congress have our own assignment: to test all of the underlying assumptions in Afghanistan and make sure they are the right ones before embarking on a new strategy.
For example, one assumption of the proposed counterinsurgency plan is that our troops and civilians will be working in partnership with a legitimate and reliable government in Afghanistan. After the deeply flawed presidential election last month, we must ask whether we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with deep suspicion by his own people.
We also need to know whether a full-blown counterinsurgency, with its increased footprint and inevitably higher casualties, is a fundamental part of our plans to go after al Qaeda and avoid destabilizing Pakistan. Could a far smaller, well-honed counterterrorism strategy work as well or better?
Some have argued that counterterrorism commandos and sophisticated surveillance might be effective at targeting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But critics contend that a counterterrorism campaign can succeed only as a component within a larger counterinsurgency.
If we increase our commitment, we might be able to develop "good enough governance" in Afghanistan, to quote the words Clare Lockhart (co-author of the insightful book "Fixing Failed States") used at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. But even that would not guarantee that we achieve another vital objective: avoiding the destabilization of neighboring Pakistan. Chaos there could put nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.
The situation in Afghanistan has clearly changed since last March when the president unveiled his goal of defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He and his advisers are exploring alternatives in light of the conditions on the ground and we should welcome the careful reassessment.
So far, the debate has focused on absolute numbers—how many U.S. and allied troops are required, how many Afghan soldiers and police do we need to train, how many more billions must we pour into that impoverished country? All the numbers are meaningless if the goal is ambiguous or the strategy is wrong.
Before we send more of our young men and women to this war, we need a fuller debate about what constitutes success in Afghanistan. We need a clearer understanding of what constitutes the right strategy to get us there. Ultimately, we need to understand, as Gen. Colin Powell was fond of asking, "What's the exit strategy?" Or as Gen. David Petraeus asked of Iraq, "How does it end?"
Why? Because one of the lessons from Vietnam—applied in the first Gulf War and sadly forgotten for too long in Iraq—is that we should not commit troops to the battlefield without a clear understanding of what we expect them to accomplish, how long it will take, and how we maintain the consent of the American people. Otherwise, we risk bringing our troops home from a mission unachieved or poorly conceived.
Gen. McChrystal offers no timetable or exit strategy, beyond warning that the next 12 months are critical. I agree that time is running out and that troops are dying without a sustainable strategy for victory. But we cannot rush to judgment.
Mr. Obama promises not to send more troops to Afghanistan until he has absolute clarity on what the strategy will be. He is right to take the time he needs to define the mission. We should all follow his lead and debate all of the options.
It may be that Gen. McChrystal has provided the road map to victory. Or it may be that some other strategy would work better, with fewer risks. We can't know until we test every assumption and examine every option.
At the end of the day, we need to answer every question to the best of our ability. Doing so will help develop the clarity required to establish goals and strategies that minimize risk to our troops, maintain regional stability, and protect our long-term national security.
Mr. Kerry, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
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