Finishing Afghanistan Without the Generals

The president is facing a crucial decision on Afghanistan. He deserves better from his national-security team. 

Flickr/sfmission.com.The Generals' e-mail meltdowns—which have already done in a Director of the CIA and threatens the commander of Afghanistan Coalition Forces—come at a critical moment in NATO's war planning. President Obama needs the best advice available as he decides how fast to transition out of Afghanistan without letting up on the drone war on the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan. It's a bad time to be consumed with side issues.

Obama has rightly put the multinational coalition of some forty countries with troops in Afghanistan on a course to carefully turn over combat operations against the Pakistan-backed Taliban from NATO to the Afghan army by 2014. The president embarked on a giant gamble four years ago. He inherited a disaster from the Bush team, a war that was under-resourced for seven years, and fought on the false assumption that Pakistan was our ally when in fact its generals and spies back our enemy. When you don't even understand who your enemy is for seven years, you are truly lost. NATO's own interrogations of thousands of captured Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents have shown it is Pakistan's generals who command the Taliban and its Quetta Shura high command. Bush never got it, but Obama got it right on this key point from the start.

Obama had two broad options in 2009. He could accept defeat and cut and run. He knew that would be a catastrophe. The global jihad would have been immensely strengthened, Pakistan would have been even more under the generals’ influence, and Osama bin Laden would be safe and secure in his Abbottabad hideout next to the general officer clubs and their top prep school for ever.

Instead he did what Bush had ignored for seven years: he built an Afghan army. It was done very fast, so fast that it allowed the Taliban to infiltrate killers inside the new army to stalk NATO's trainers. And so fast that the Afghans lack an air force, medics, logistics and other key enablers to wage war alone. But it is now large enough. Whether it is good enough is still unknowable.

Obama was cursed with a controversy-prone team of diplomats and generals who fought each other with leaks and gossip more than some fought the enemy. It has not been pretty to watch the gaffes undo our troops.

But Obama understood that Pakistan is the core of the problem. When the CIA found bin Laden's lair, he knew he could not trust the Pakistanis to take care of High-Value Target Number One and that only a SEAL raid from an Afghan base would bring justice to al Qaeda's emir. He knew the drones would work only if Pakistan was kept out of the loop on targeting and Afghan bases found the terrorists hideouts. He knew Pakistan talked a good game about wanting a political solution but was really banking on American defeatism.

Now we are close to the moment of truth. Will our gamble on the Afghans work, or will warlordism and chaos follow our withdrawal? Will the Pakistanis assume we are abandoning Kabul and go for the kill? How many troops should remain after 2014 to help the Afghans stabilize their deeply divided land? How can we keep flying drones over al Qaeda's bases if we lose our bases in Afghanistan?

The stakes are huge. More than a decade’s fight with al Qaeda's extremism hangs in the balance. Bin Laden's successor Ayman Zawahiri already proclaims victory. So does Mullah Omar. And the generals in Rawalpindi are smugly confident America will crumble and quit. China, Iran, India, Russia and others are watching keenly. Visiting Europe this week, I have seen how NATO's future as a fighting team is also in the balance as our allies follow our sex scandals.

So let's finish with emails, scandals and distractions. Obama's foreign policy legacy is his war in South Asia. He owns it now. Decision time is here and the question is how to transition prudently and responsibly. The president deserves advisors who believe in the mission, back the strategy and commit to its success. Maybe he should take away their Blackberries.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad;(Brookings Institution Press, 2011).