Take the Gloves Off Against a Terrible Political and Military Strategy
The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Take the Gloves Off Against the Taliban’, by Dave Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon is at once reasonable, baffling, insufficient and infuriating.
It is reasonable to bomb our enemies – the Taliban. They have killed thousands of Americans and allies. As the authors point out, bombing is financially modest in cost and is relatively safe. Pilots and aircraft are rarely lost.
It is baffling because the average American has no idea that the administration, at some point, stopped bombing in order to ‘signal’ the Taliban that they really weren’t our enemy and couldn’t we all just sit down and get along. This reprise of Vietnam-era stupidity went unremarked by the press, the military, and the foreign policy elite.
It is insufficient because we have been bombing for 15 years - and fought on the ground for 13 years – without achieving any semblance of a lasting outcome.
It is infuriating in its tepid smugness. For some reason, the authors – while knowing we were not bombing for the last few years – chose to remain silent. Now they assert that “simply” bombing “will very likely make much of the difference between some version of victory and defeat.”
How can a reader divine meaning in that sentence? They do not explain their “version of victory and defeat.” They conclude with… no conclusion. And rightly so, because earlier in the op-ed they explain away the mortal failing in the military logic of the 12 US generals who commanded in Afghanistan, and the myriad of military and civilian policymakers who abetted them.
Consider the devious obtuseness of the Op-ed: “Without the sanctuaries they (the Taliban) enjoy in Pakistan, it is doubtful that they could mount an organized threat to the country…”
Now think back to, say, 1965, or 68, or 72 and insert these words: “Without the sanctuaries the enemy enjoys in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it is doubtful they could mount an organized threat to the country of South Vietnam.”
Thus sanctuaries are an immutable fact of warfare. We cannot win while they exist and we are powerless to do anything about them. So let’s fight a war for 15 years in Afghanistan and lose thousands of our young men because, well, because we’re really smart guys. After all, we can always bomb and lose no one. And that “will very likely make much of the difference between some version of victory and defeat.”
I favor heavy bombing. More than that, I favor honest strategists who will tell policymakers when their goals – like nation-building in Afghanistan – are unachievable at any sustainable cost primarily due to the Pakistan sanctuary. Don’t fight for 15 years, and then argue that bombing will make all the difference. Begin by admitting how terrible the political and military strategy was from the start. Bombing is a necessary palliative; gaining leverage over Pakistan to restrict the sanctuary is more imperative.