Could there be a Tet Offensive in Afghanistan?
Once when the French statesman Duc de Richelieu (1766-1822) was planning a military campaign, an officer placed a finger on a map, saying: "We shall cross the river at this point." Richelieu replied: "Excellent, sir, but your finger is not a bridge."
The difference between planning and accomplishing in war is on many minds as the Obama administration reviews progress, such as it has been, in Afghanistan in the 54 weeks since the president simultaneously announced the surge and a July 2011 beginning of "the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan." Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, was recently asked (on ABC's "This Week") to assess progress there. He responded with minimalist optimism: There has been "localized improvement" in "certain areas."
Two years ago this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when asked about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, stressed creation of a strong central government. Asked if Afghanistan had ever had one, he said crisply: "No." Since then, U.S. officials have learned a lot about Afghanistan, including these two related facts: The disconnect between the government and the people is worse than hitherto suspected. And the corruption is so systemic and pandemic as to be properly described as vertically integrated.
Today, in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures, a strong central government seems highly unlikely and perhaps unadvisable. In one leaked document, the current U.S. ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, wonders "how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt."
In the past 12 months, 2011 has been quietly eclipsed by 2014 as a decisive date - when Afghan security forces are supposed to be competent enough that U.S. forces can recede from combat. So the fundamental questions are: Can Afghan security forces become competent while the Afghan government remains riddled with, indeed defined by, corruption? If they cannot, can America successfully combat corruption and the Taliban, simultaneously?
A fresh glimpse of combat operations is unsettling. Writing from Afghanistan for the Dec. 4 National Journal ("The Ghost Hunters"), Yochi J. Dreazen describes troops under Army Capt. Chris Watson searching for Taliban bomb-makers who had successfully struck a U.S. convoy:
"At the end of a long and largely fruitless day, the soldiers finally spotted something suspicious. . . .A pair of black wires sticking out of the ground looked as if they might be part of a homemade bomb. . . . A bomb-disposal expert carefully dug out the wires. Instead of a bomb, he unearthed a trio of playing cards, including an ace of spades, buried carefully in the dirt. 'It almost feels like they're taunting us,' Watson said, brushing off the cards."
The Taliban is culturally primitive, so any sign of tactical sophistication is unsettling. Although it is unlikely that the Taliban leadership has as nuanced an understanding of the importance and dynamics of American public opinion in wartime as North Vietnam's leadership did, Taliban leaders surely know that North Vietnam won the Vietnam War not in Vietnam but in America.
And they surely know the role played by North Vietnam's February 1968 Tet Offensive. Although U.S. forces thoroughly defeated the enemy, the American public, seeing only chaos and the prospect of many more years of it, turned decisively against the war.
Might the Taliban's tactics, techniques and procedures (in military argot, TTP) make possible a spike in violence in some way comparable to Tet in its impact on American opinion? No one knows this, or how another attack on America, perhaps launched from Yemen, might affect public support for what are explained as prophylactic operations in Afghanistan.
Twenty-three months after the apotheosis of Barack Obama as herald of a durable liberal era, Washington's conversations are conducted in conservatism's vocabulary - retrenching, economizing and generally limiting government. Liberals watching the extension of the George W. Bush tax rates, the continuation of Bush's creation at Guantanamo and the escalation of a war Bush began in Afghanistan are increasingly dyspeptic.
Twenty-three months from now, Obama will have been reelected, or not. The outcome depends partly on whether the party's left, which provides a disproportionate portion of the party's energy, is energized. On Election Day 2012, what already is America's longest war will be in its 12th year.
Whatever one thinks of the current strategy in this war, Obama is prosecuting it with a vigor that indicates a refusal to allow political calculations to condition national security policy. This presidential virtue could imperil his presidency.