Don’t Settle for Stalemate in Afghanistan

Six months ago the Obama administration concluded that the only way to stop Afghanistan’s slide into insecurity and prevent the reemergence of a terrorist haven was to put in place an integrated counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting the Afghan population, building up the Afghan national security forces and improving Afghan governance.

We strongly supported the president’s decision and continue to believe that he was right. He also made the right decision last week when, in a meeting with congressional leaders, he ruled out withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The key question confronting the administration now is not whether to pursue counterinsurgency in Afghanistan but whether to provide that counterinsurgency effort with the resources it needs. We believe that providing those resources will be critical.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment states that his new strategy requires additional resources and the proper execution of an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign. To this end, he has reportedly forwarded to the president a range of resource options, each with differing levels of risk to the mission. We hope that President Obama will carefully weigh these recommendations and provide his commander with the necessary forces and civilian resources he needs to properly execute a counterinsurgency campaign.

Some suggest that we should send just enough forces to “hold the line” against the Taliban and prevent them from retaking the major population centers, while continuing to build up the Afghan army and police. In our view, this course would probably be a prescription for stalemate — which, in a counterinsurgency, is a prescription for failure.

Indeed, as McChrystal warned in his recent assessment, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

Other critics justify opposition to a properly resourced counterinsurgency by pointing to other problems and priorities in the region that also require attention. But exactly how would sending fewer forces to Afghanistan put us in a stronger position to persuade the Afghan government to crack down on corruption and reform? Or persuade reconcilable elements of the Taliban to abandon insurgency and come over to our side? Or get nuclear-armed Pakistan to tackle the extremist threat on its own territory?

Failure to provide Gen. McChrystal with the military resources he needs to reverse the insurgency’s momentum would make all these challenges harder to manage by reinforcing doubts throughout the region about our commitment to this fight and our capacity to prevail in it. But if we can roll back the Taliban and establish basic security in key population centers, as a properly resourced counterinsurgency will allow us to do, it will put us in a position of far greater strength and credibility from which to convince Afghans and others throughout the region that it is in their interest and worth the risk to work with us.

The population security established with an increase of military forces will provide the opportunity to employ additional civilian resources to help the Afghan people build more acceptable governance structures on a local level, help reform the central government and begin to establish the real services that Afghans want their government to provide. We should be clear: We will not win this conflict because we send some specific number of additional troops to Afghanistan. But those additional troops are, in our opinion, probably necessary to buy the time and space to help the Afghan people win their own fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Here at home, we must stabilize public support by convincing an increasingly skeptical American people that the Afghan war is in fact winnable. This will happen when Americans begin to see the kind of visible gains that only a properly resourced counterinsurgency campaign can achieve through the use of additional troops to establish security and additional civilian resources to aid governmental reform and economic growth. On the other hand, if we send too few troops to regain the initiative from the insurgency and too few civilian resources to help cement those hard-won gains, public support will likely collapse.

There should be no confusion about what is at stake in this fight. The last time they were in power, the Taliban not only brutally suppressed the human rights of their own people, they also welcomed Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network into Afghanistan, refusing to give them up even after Sept. 11, 2001. Allowing the Taliban to return to power would represent a major victory for extremist forces throughout the world, tilt the balance of power in South Asia in their favor and further endanger America’s homeland security from terrorists trained there.

The president was right to call the war in Afghanistan “a war of necessity.” Now it is time to treat it as such and commit the decisive force that will allow Gen. McChrystal to break the Taliban’s momentum as quickly as possible.

Ike Skelton and Joe Lieberman. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.