Do we want to win?
December 3rd, 2009 by Demophilus
Sooner or later, America is going to have to come to a point where we decide whether or not we want to win the war in Afghanistan. We’ve been driving down this road for 8 years now, and passed I don’t know how many crossroads. Apparently we’ve come to another one. Last night, against the backdrop of the future military leaders of America, President Obama laid out his new strategy for fighting this war. What still remains to be seen is whether or not this is a war America is committed to winning. So far, I have yet to see the kind of real discussion that is needed to determine the resolve of this country. War is not a place for half measures. War is unforgiving, uncompromising, and demands resolve in the face of adversity. I’m not here to debate the merits of the Obama plan and whether it will or won’t work. My first introduction to being a veteran speaking to members of Congress dates back to the time period prior to the 2007 Iraq “Surge” and my concerns about the labeling of General Petraeus’ strategy a failure before it had even been given the chance to be implemented. At the time, there was much doom and gloom in the halls of Congress revolving around committing more troops to a failed war effort. Then, as now, I believed that you have to actually try to implement complicated measures before you can declare their success or failure. In the face of skeptics and critics, General Petraeus’ strategy led to a more stable position in Iraq that now enables us to be developing the plans for exit. The new plan offered by President Obama has promising characteristics. It recognizes the need for additional forces, it recognizes the need of the Afghan government and people to take responsibility for their own nation and shoulder their share of the burden, and it recognizes that military measures alone are not sufficient to establish Afghanistan as a stable nation state free from the control of Taliban extremists. These are excellent indications, and point towards a promising, holistic approach that is not short sighted and focused on simple, military objectives alone. Fighting wars in destabilized and underdeveloped nations demand approaches that recognize these unique exigencies. I will set aside for now issues about telegraphing a timetable for success to an enemy. I personally don’t think it’s ever a good idea in military operations, but I will also note that the President did not lay out a timeline for final withdrawal; merely it would seem a ramping back of these surge forces. Furthermore, that issue is not germane to the more pertinent issues that immediately face the country and how we fight this war. To borrow an oft used phrase from the President: Let me be clear. The hard part is just beginning. One of the lynchpins of the new strategy is to build the internal forces of Afghanistan, the police and the Army, up to levels of strength and training whereby they can support and defend their own country. Given unlimited time and resources this is a challenging task. Given a short playing field and the clock running out, this is going to be all the more arduous. I have served in Afghanistan, and conducted operations with both the Afghan National Army (ANA) as well as their police forces. Discipline is often substandard, operations can frequently hinge on whether or not they bother to show up. One group of Afghan police escorts we were supposed to conduct operations with would regularly show up to fuel their vehicles in the morning, develop “engine troubles” half a kilometer outside the compound, tell us to go on ahead, and be gone five minutes later…but show up again the next day to get more gas for their trucks. On top of that, loyalties are ever shifting and often divided between multiple factions, with people playing not only both sides of the fence, but a third and fourth side of the fence if they can figure out how to manage it. This is not to say that things are all bad. I had some excellent experiences with the ANA guys, and if their discipline didn’t quite match a US military unit, they were often brave and even fairly motivated. They were soldiers just like us, and grumbled about being away from their families, Lieutenants who couldn’t read maps, and substandard military chow. On top of all that, they liked to decorate their AK-47’s with sparkly glitter tape which, while not exactly being a great idea from a military perspective, seemed to aid esprit de corps and was admittedly a little endearing. When it all hit the fan though, they were happy to lay down a pretty heavy field of fire, even if it wasn’t the most on point or accurate. Training all of these men to fight and protect is not going to be easy. It will be a great challenge. Great challenges are no stranger to the men and women of the US Armed Forces though, and I know they will not shrink from this task. I know they will do the best they can, or even better than they thought possible because that’s what you do…you get the job done. You do what they ask you to do. You suck it up, drive on and wash it all down with a steaming mug of STFU. This part will likely suck for those involved, but they’ll do it. The training isn’t the only hard part though. As we ramp up our forces and operations, inevitably casualties will increase. Even in an Iraq strategy that ultimately looks to have been successful, casualties increased with the early phases of the operation. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The more people you put in harm’s way, the more likely it is that some harm will come to them. President Obama acknowledged meeting the bodies of the fallen at Dover, and I am sure is well aware of the impending costs this strategy will bring. Any average person on the street must know by now that war brings death, and that we will lose many more service members before all of this is over. I say this not as a reason not to pursue this strategy. I say this because we must harden ourselves to the difficult truths that fighting brings. I say this because we need to know what is coming and say “Yes. This still matters.” These difficulties do not suggest reasons that we must turn away from Afghanistan, but they represent hard truths that must be faced to steel the resolve of a nation at war. Victory in war does not come cheaply. As crass as it may be to mention scant words after the human cost, there is an economic cost to be faced as well. Beans and bullets cost money as well. We are already struggling through a difficult economy in this country. We are told it is the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. In order to win a war, we must spend, and that may mean tightening belts at home. We’ve done it before though. We can do it again. Great leaders do not shy away from hard truths. Great leaders lay out the difficult path of adversity and challenge their followers to drive through the hard path with them. We are told that President Obama is one of the greatest orators of our time, that he can inspire a country to be more than it is, and that he can inspire us to great acts and great deeds. I wanted to see that Tuesday night, but it was missing. Where was President Kennedy insisting that America could “…pay any price, bear any burden…” where was FDR rallying the country in fireside chats and promoting the industrial power of the United States as the Arsenal of Democracy? War demands a leader who will LEAD. Leadership is not all compromise and trying to please everyone with half measures that ultimately please no one. Leadership is making hard choices that will alienate some, yet driving forth with fire to rally all to the call and to prepare them honestly for the sacrifices that must be made to do the Right thing. I fear we have reached a point where we are afraid to tell people what they won’t want to hear, and thus we shy away from it, making the inevitable travails that follow all the more heartbreaking. America was awakened 8 years ago to a horror that demanded action, and America was roused to action. Last night, we were meant to be reminded that the threat remains, and that it was a just threat that demanded our responsible action. We were politely told. We need to be shaken. We need to be slapped. We need to wake up again and decide if we want to make a stand here. We don’t need an exit strategy; we need a strategy for victory. We need someone who will shake us out of our beds and show us how the world is really on fire…and will lead us through the fire to the better place beyond. I realized what I wanted to hear, but those speeches are a dim memory to most, and before my time. They bear listening to though, even if they came from across the sea. They are as relevant then as it was now, even if the players have changed. One is from a Greek leader, and one from a Brit. I put them out there for people to think about, and ask themselves if they can imagine America in those contexts. I put them there as food for thought as we ponder whether we want to win this fight.
"Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster; because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity." --Pericles' Third Oration
“Even though large parts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.” --Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940
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