Belmont Club

John McCain on Afghanistan

John McCain laid out his strategic thinking in the War on Terror in an integrated way, examining in particular the link between the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In describing the situation McCain extends the logic of the Iraq counterinsurgency effort and employs the framework of the “lessons learned” to the global campaign against Islamic extremism. One of the lessons of the Surge has been the need to create lasting security in one place before haring off in pursuit of mobile enemy forces. This was sometimes referred to in the media as the “ink spot” theory of counterinsurgency. McCain, in addressing overall strategy, warns that Obama’s plan to evacuate in Iraq in order to “get” Osama Bin Laden is precisely a repetition of the cardinal mistake of leaving an operation half-finished in order to begin a new one.

Senator Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. It is by applying the tried and true principles of counter-insurgency used in the surge — which Senator Obama opposed — that we will win in Afghanistan. With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how to win wars. And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.

McCain proceeds to demonstrate a grasp of the Surge which has eluded much of the MSM: that it’s key principle came from mobilizing the population against terrorists. Getting Iraqis to fight terrorists informed every aspect of Petraeus’ strategy from the redeployment of US forces to smaller outposts, the change in emphasis from pure Force Protection to the protection of the population, and even the generation of tribal and regular forces to augment US forces. McCain proceeds to show how he will apply the same principles globally. In the following paragraph McCain describes why US troop numbers alone were not enough in Iraq; nor will they be in Afghanistan and in the process attempts to show how Obama’s ideas are not only inadequate for Iraq but also come up short in Southwest Asia.

In the 18 months that Senator Obama has been campaigning for the presidency, the number of NATO forces in Afghanistan has already almost doubled — from 33,000 in January 2007 to about 53,000 today. Yet security has still deteriorated. What we need in Afghanistan is exactly what Gen. Petraeus brought to Iraq: a nationwide civil-military campaign plan that is focused on providing security for the population. Today no such integrated plan exists. When I am commander-in-chief, it will.

One of the reasons there is no comprehensive campaign plan for Afghanistan is because we have violated one of the cardinal rules of any military operation: unity of command. Today there are no less than three different American military combatant commands operating in Afghanistan, as well as NATO, some of whose members have national restrictions on where their troops can go and what they can do. This is no way to run a war. The top commander in Afghanistan needs to be just that: the supreme commander of all coalition forces. As commander-in-chief, I will work with our allies to ensure unity of command.

From a political point of view McCain’s speech is an attempt to claim all the right strategic ideas publicly before Obama can retrospectively ascribe them to his own genius. It is an act of seizing the intellectual high ground so that Obama is either forced to occupy some other ground or reluctantly join McCain on turf he has already staked out. Having seized the heights, McCain proceeds to extend it.

Everyone knows the United States increased the number of its soldiers in Iraq last year. What’s less well known is that the Iraqis surged with us, adding over 100,000 security forces to their ranks. It’s time for the Afghans to do the same. The Afghan army is already a great success story: a multiethnic, battle-tested fighting force. The problem is, it’s too small, with a projected strength of only 80,000 troops. For years, the Afghans have been telling us they need a bigger army, and they are right. We need to at least double the size of the Afghan army to 160,000 troops. The costs of this increase, however, should not be borne by American taxpayers alone. Insecurity in Afghanistan is the world’s problem, and the world should share the costs. We must work with our allies to establish an international trust fund to provide long-term financing for the Afghan army. …

I will appoint a special presidential envoy to address disputes between Afghanistan and its neighbors. Our goal must be to turn Afghanistan from a theater for regional rivalries into a commons for regional cooperation.

A special focus of our regional strategy must be Pakistan, where terrorists today enjoy sanctuary. This must end. We must strengthen local tribes in the border areas who are willing to fight the foreign terrorists there — the strategy used successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq. We must convince Pakistanis that this is their war as much as it is ours. And we must empower the new civilian government of Pakistan to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education. Senator Obama has spoken in public about taking unilateral military action in Pakistan. In trying to sound tough, he has made it harder for the people whose support we most need to provide it. I will not bluster, and I will not make idle threats. But understand this: when I am commander -in-chief, there will be nowhere the terrorists can run, and nowhere they can hide.

Almost none of the ideas McCain is putting forward will be new to those who have followed the War seriously. They will only seem shocking and original to those who have viewed the world through the fantasies of Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan et al, and the unnatural prism of Vietnam. Much of anti-war policy has been self-destructively driven by ideological biases rather than inducted from geographical and historical facts. Obama has perhaps without realizing it, simply parroted the received wisdom of the Left and McCain scathingly takes him to task for it.

Senator Obama is departing soon on a trip abroad that will include a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Afghanistan. And I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time. In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy.

Barack Obama is almost certain to strike back with his customary eloquence and rhetorical skills. But Obama, good as he is, will be operating under a major disadvantage: McCain has seized the key intellectual terrain. McCain’s strategy is mostly right. And that will have consequences.

Tip Jar.