Belmont Club

The two front war

John Harris and Jim Vandehei ask in a Politico article whether Obama really wants the US to win in Afghanistan. The Politico says that when Obama realizes what a military victory in Southwest Asia would really entail, he may get cold feet. Faced with such a commitment they suggest Obama will backpedal on his promises and let things simmer along.

Most military experts think a decisive win in Afghanistan — as opposed to a muddle-through strategy leading to a gradual withdrawal —will involve a major surge in troops and a willingness to tolerate high costs and high casualties. In any event, the country and its unruly neighbor, Pakistan, will quite likely dominate Obama’s attention much more than Iraq.

Joe Biden’s first trip abroad as vice President-elect included a stop in Afghanistan. When he returned home, he told Obama: “The truth is that things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan before they’re going to get better.” If that’s true, Obama may in the end find muddle-through more attractive than victory.

Win decisively or muddle through? Whatever he does, argues the Captain’s Journal, he shouldn’t follow the advice of Karzai. Herschel Smith writes: “Hamid Karzai wants … operational and strategic control over U.S. forces. … Given the state of affairs in Afghanistan, to give operational, strategic and tactical control of U.S. troops over to a foreign president would not only work contrary to the unity of command sought by placing U.S. troops back under CENTCOM with Petraeus in charge. More to the point, it would have disastrous consequences for the campaign.”

The draft technical agreement would put into place rules of conduct for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and the number of additional NATO troops and their location would have to be approved by the Afghan government. The agreement — an attempt by Afghanistan to gain more control over international military operations — would also prohibit NATO troops from conducting any searches of Afghan homes, according to a copy of the draft obtained by The Associated Press.

Lurking within the content of these two articles is a larger potential problem. The hidden danger in the Afghan campaign is its potential for expansion. In fact it is less and less a conflict within Afghanistan as much as it is about a series of interrelated problems in Southwest Asia.  Afghanistan can’t be ‘won’ in isolation. The problem is that to broaden the solution context potentially means broadening the war.

Obama is now in the position that Lyndon Johnson was in 1965, at the period when American advisers in Vietnam were deemed insufficient to handle the challenge. Johnson made the fatal mistake of committing decisively large forces without decisive intent. If Obama expands the effort in Southwest Asia and he wishes to avoid LBJ’s fate, he must do it with the view of winning a quick and decisive victory — what the Politico called a “decisive win”. Otherwise he will find himself in the military nightmare of the Two Front War — he’ll have to abandon the Middle East for Southwest Asia if it sucks in more resources because there aren’t enough to keep two long term conflicts going simultaneously. Two Front Wars are infamous for destroying those who get caught up in them by attrition.

Herschel Smith’s warning is also reminiscent of Johnson’s problems with the Saigon politicians. The chronic need to pander to local politicians hobbled the military effort by imposing on it the requirement to do things in half-measures.

The normal procedure for fighting multiple challenges is to decisively win one front before transferring forces to the other, thereby engaging the enemy serially rather than in parallel. Until then, the lesser threat should be contained by a holding action. For a long time now, the “War in Afghanistan” has been treated as if it were a separate thing from the “War in Iraq”. Both are part of the same War on Terror. BHO now stands at a strategic crossroads. The problem is that in order to satisfy the many competing political demands of his constituents he may follow Yogi Berra’s advice: ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it.’