In the early months of his administration the president ordered policy reviews of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and al-Qaeda but set no timetable for completion. Substantive talks with heads of state in the region did not commence until June. Nearly nine months into his administration, despite repeated threat warnings, top advisors met for the first time to hammer out an Afghanistan strategy, focusing for the first time on ousting the Taliban and hunting down Osama bin Laden. That was Sept. 4, 2001.
Barack Obama is not the first new president to nervously nudge Afghanistan to a back burner. The failure of the Bush administration to early on adopt a comprehensive and muscular strategy can be instructive. Despite 216 threat warnings issued by the FBI in the first nine months of 2001, despite 33 intercepts recorded by the National Security Agency suggesting al-Qaeda attacks, despite military commanders placing U.S. forces in the Arabian and Persian Gulfs on Threat Condition Delta, the highest state of alert, political leaders in Washington during those same months could agree on neither a strategy to fight terrorism nor the urgency to have one.
By the time they implemented the plan discussed Sept. 4 that included arming and supporting allied militants in the fight against the Taliban, our strongest ally in Afghanistan-not to mention 3,000 Americans-was dead. Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by a suicide bomber on Sept. 10 in what was arguably the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks.
President Obama now has the opportunity to benefit from history: In the fight against terrorists, days matter.
In the time since he told a VFW gathering that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" (Aug. 17); and since his commander of that war, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, requested 40,000 new troops to mount a counterinsurgency (Aug. 30); and since the FBI arrested Najibullah Zazi (Sept. 19), an Afghan immigrant who trained with al-Qaeda in Pakistan and appeared ready to execute a bomb plot in the United States; the urgency of the days again is gathering.
Gen. McChrystal seems ready to risk his position, telling a gathering of experts in London that the United States courts "Chaosistan" if it fails to make a decisive military stand to turn back the Taliban. "I believe you have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were. We are in Afghanistan. We've established relationships, expectations both with the Afghan people, the Afghan government, in the region, and I believe Afghanistan has its own value."
But if McChrystal's job is on the line, then so too is the job of Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who has endorsed McChrystal's recommendation: "I support a properly resourced, classically pursued counterinsurgency effort. . . . You can't do that from offshore, and you can't do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there, where the people are, when they need you there, and until they can provide for their own security."
Equally significant is support in Britain, where war-weariness is high (and casualties recently, as with U.S. forces, have climbed). Nonetheless, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told a Labour Party gathering in late September he could not ensure continued UK involvement if the Obama administration adopted a plan for less rather than more U.S. presence. The way to defeat this enemy, he said, is not turning the clock back to the 1990s "when Afghanistan was a place for al-Qaeda to seduce, groom, train and plan for deadly terrorist missions. With the best of intentions we would be risking the next 9/11 or 7/7."
Obama also can learn positive lessons from his predecessor. On Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. forces launched the opening attack against the then-ruling Taliban. On Nov. 9 they captured Mazar-e-Sharif and within a week controlled all but a pocket of Afghanistan. On Nov. 14 the UN Security Council approved a resolution calling on Afghans to form a new government.
But eight years-and many failures of political will-later, Afghanistan is not the mythologized graveyard of Western military powers so much as the testing ground of political fortitude. When it has been strong, the United States and our allies have succeeded. When it has faltered, the consequences have been disastrous, and swift.
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