By Senator John McCain
Published by The Wall Street Journal on August 31st, 2010
Today President Obama will deliver a major speech to mark the draw down of U.S. forces in Iraq to 50,000 troops.
He will likely point out, as his administration has rightly argued, that Iraq still faces major challenges--foremost its inability to form a government--and that neither American sacrifice nor our commitment to Iraq's success is ending today. Yet our troops are returning with honor, which makes this a fitting time to reflect on the causes of their victory and on what lessons from Iraq can help us win the war in Afghanistan.
Though most Democrats still cannot bear to admit it, the war in Iraq is ending successfully because the surge worked. In 2007, President George W. Bush finally adopted a strategy and a team in Iraq that could win. He worked constantly to build public support for the policy. Just as important, the surge worked because it was clear that success was the only exit strategy: U.S. troops would meet their objectives, and then they would withdraw.
This policy was savaged by Democrats in Congress--including then-Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton--all of whom called for withdrawing U.S. forces regardless of the conditions or consequences. It would be nice if President Obama could finally find it in himself to give his predecessor the credit he deserves.
Whether they admit it or not, the administration's Afghanistan policy suggests they have learned some lessons from Iraq--some, but not all. We finally have a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan with increased levels of troops and resources. The architect of the surge in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is now leading the war in Afghanistan.
This strategy is good and can succeed, but it is undercut by the president's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011--no matter what conditions are on the ground. None of our military leaders recommended this approach.
The effect of this is self-defeating. The key actors are hedging their bets, making it less likely that regional powers will stop supporting the insurgency or that our Afghan partners will fully embrace the fight against corruption. Meanwhile, our enemies take comfort in knowing that fewer U.S. troops will be fighting them next year than this year.
According to Gen. James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, the July 2011 deadline is "probably giving our enemy sustenance." Or, as the famous Taliban saying goes: "You've got the watches, we've got the time." The ambiguity of our policy is only playing into the hands of our enemies.
Our Afghanistan strategy is now being tested, just as the surge in Iraq was tested during 2007. Slow progress, rising casualties, and concerns about the weakness and reliability of our local partners are all decreasing public support for the war. A mood of defeatism is growing about Afghanistan, just as it once did with Iraq. Indeed, many of the same critics that would have delivered failure in Iraq are back again with calls for unconditional troop withdrawal, partitioning the country, a retreat to large bases and so on.
At this critical stage in Afghanistan--as was the case at a similar point in Iraq--there is no substitute for presidential leadership. President Obama was right to call success in Afghanistan a "vital national security interest" in his West Point speech last December. But that interest does not become any less vital in July 2011.
The president needs to state unequivocally that the conduct of the war, including decisions about troop strength, will be based on conditions on the ground. Furthermore, U.S. withdrawals should follow from a definition of success in Afghanistan that is broadly analogous to the success now emerging in Iraq--a country that is increasingly able to defend and govern itself.
We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we need to give this policy the necessary time to work. That's the best and fastest way for our troops to come home, as they are now from Iraq.