Earlier this month, conservative flamethrower Ann Coulter turned her fire onto her own side. Coulter lit into Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney by name, and a raft of other conservatives by implication, because they called for the gaffe-prone Republican National Committee chairman to resign for declaring that the Afghanistan war was a “war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in”:
Keep in mind, again, [inadudible] our federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not, this was not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in. It was one of those, one of those areas on the total board of of foreign policy of the middle east, that you would be in the background, sort of shaping the, the changes that were necessary in Afghanistan, as opposed to directly engaging troops. But it was the President, who tried to be cute by half, by flipping the script, demonizing Iraq while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. Well if, if he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that’s the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan. Alright? Because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan that do not [indaudible] …
Michael Steele’s comments seemed daft to most. Anyone with any memory whatsoever recalls that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan began as a direct response to the 9/11 terror attacks during the Bush administration. We’ve been engaged in low intensity warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaeda there ever since.
It seems odd that Coulter, of all people, would defend Steele. After all, it was Coulter who famously wrote two days after the attacks of 9/11, while the country was still reeling in shock: “We should invade their countries, kill their [Muslim] leaders and convert them to Christianity.”
But her stance isn’t inconsistent, even if her column isn’t one of her best. Coulter’s complaint is based upon her understanding that the Bush administration took out the ruling Taliban and their infrastructure, removing al-Qaeda’s safe haven and putting Osama bin Laden on the run ever since. After that, she seems to be under the impression that we relegated Afghanistan to little more than a holding action while we took on the state-sponsored terrorism of Iraq and dealt with the fallout of insurgency and near civil war as we tried to rebuild their nation.
Iraq is won. It has been, as much as any insurgency has a notable end time, since the surge brought the Sunni insurgents into the government and forced the Shia militias underground. But Coulter supports Steele’s statement, because she reads it as saying that Afghanistan is Obama’s war since he chose to change how the conflict was being waged.
That is an intellectually consistent argument. I can’t defend it, and will not try. I do understand her ultimate point, however — even if we should have all asked it far earlier. What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? What does winning look like? If our goal isn’t to win, then why are we asking our troops to fight and die?
These are legitimate questions. We cannot expect to nation-build for a culture that does not tend to think of itself as a nation. We cannot expect diplomatic efforts to succeed with their “national government,” when its ability to project power is less than that of some city councils and school boards.
Instead, we’ve poured billions into a corrupt government, propping up a pro-Western Hamid Karzai simply because he smiles as he pockets our money. We’ve occupied and then left regions of the country. Sometimes we’ve been all but pushed out as in Wanat and the Korengal Valley. We’ve poured in men and material only to find our technology ill-matched to the primitive conditions, and our men in isolated outposts all but marooned by geography and neutered by bizarrely politicized rules of engagement.
Everyone remembers Coulter’s biting post-9/11 quote, but few remember the entire paragraph as written:
We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.
Afghanistan is a war. If we desire something like victory, we need to treat it like one.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan were ineffective at best, deadly at worst. Presumably written to save the lives of Afghan civilians, they did nothing to reduce civilian casualties and instead caused NATO casualties to skyrocket. When General David Petraeus stepped down from his seat at U.S. Central Command, expectations were high that he would revise the rules of engagement. But is that enough?
Petraeus has proven himself to be a master of counterinsurgency, helping to literally write the book on how we fought and won in Iraq.
It is not enough.
As a society and as a military, we still seem intent on fighting the last war, battling a counterinsurgency whether or not those strategies and tactics are what we need to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Those tactics will not win. Refusing to embrace the totality of what is required to win in Afghanistan will only lead to defeat.
As Coulter suggested, the only way to defeat a fanatical enemy is to break their will and ability to fight, to eradicate every ideological underpinning and force them to focus on nothing more or less than gasping for survival.
We firebombed German and Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians. We did so to break them psychologically. That failed (at least in Europe; Fat Man and Little Boy were psychologically potent upon the people and rulers of Japan indeed). Fortunately, the telling effect was the slow but total destruction of their capability to wage war.
If we truly desire to win in Afghanistan, we must wage total war.
We must destroy the economy of the Taliban that sustains them, and that means the destruction of the opium poppy fields. We cannot mildly suggest that farmers convert to less lucrative crops. We need to instead make it painfully clear that poppy fields will be defoliated, each and every time. Afghanistan has long been the world’s leading supplier of opium, and the country’s warlords buy their weapons and pay their soldiers with profit from the drug trade. Kill the poppy fields, and you kill their ability to wage war. A pleasant side effect would be a substantial dent in the drug war; most of the heroin abused in Europe and Asia is directly linked to Afghan fields.
On a purely military level, we cannot tie the hands of our soldiers and Marines. Afghan civilians must know that to support or hide the Taliban, to provide them sanctuary and respite, is a death sentence. Afghan villagers continue to harbor the feeling that allied forces are the weak horse and that siding with the Taliban is in their best interests.
Just as opium eradication cripples the warlords’ ability to purchase weapons, ammunition, influence, and men, a message of no quarter towards the Taliban and their sympathizers will lead to the weakened Islamists being shunned. Even illiterate farmers easily grasp the concept of not backing the wrong player in a war. Utterly decimating the Taliban send s very clear message for civilians to sit on the sidelines, or better yet, seek protection from NATO forces.
A final, vital element that must come into play if the Taliban and al-Qaeda are to be defeated in the tribal regions is that the same kind of newly unrestricted war must spread into the Pakistani tribal regions. Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, and particularly North Waziristan and South Waziristan must be subject the same rules of total warfare as Afghanistan if the Taliban and al-Qaeda are to be broken once and for all.
Then, and only then, should we help those Afghans with what little economy they have cultivated over centuries of barbarism.
Such a conflict would be resented inside Pakistan, but perhaps not as deeply as some critics are certain to suggest. The United States, responsible for executing a 20th century campaign amidst 21st century political correctness, may find itself a pariah in the international community for a time, particularly among those thuggish states who would delight in our defeats.
We must weigh those concerns against the immoral stasis we find ourselves in, engaged in a war where our military is presently neither allowed to fight nor withdraw.