Knowing When to Stop, or Learning How to Win?

A guest blog by Michael Brandon McClellan

[Mike McClellan is a graduate of Yale and Georgetown Law and a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. His articles on politics and foreign policy have appeared in the WSJ, the Weekly Standard and on TCS Daily.  It’s our pleasure to welcome him as a contributor.]

A few months ago I sat in awe in a Santa Monica hotel ballroom. George Will had been speaking for an hour and still held the audience spellbound. In a relaxed conversational tone, he addressed a dozen subjects, deploying dates, anecdotes, and quotations with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Never once in the seventy-five minutes did he consult a note. It was classic George Will, and it was impressive.

Last week, however, Will reminded me that brilliant men can err, and even err substantially, when he wrote a column titled “In Afghanistan, Knowing When to Stop.” Implying that the lives of some of America’s finest young men would be squandered if the US does not withdraw, Will declared Afghanistan to be essentially not winnable, and perhaps more importantly, not worth winning. Citing the present failure of America’s nation-building and democratizing mission after eight years of effort, Will offered the following policy prescription:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

On its face this must sound tempting to a wide audience. Such a policy would save the lives of Marines and soldiers on the ground, save tax-payers the expense of deploying 68,000 troops, and use air-power to play to American technological strengths. The problem with this thinking is not only that it has failed before, but that it has failed before in Afghanistan. Less than twenty years ago, the United States abandoned its mujahideen allies after a decade of arming them against the Soviet Union. We know who filled that vacuum.

George Will argues that Afghanistan is underdeveloped, has a tiny GDP, and is not worth American blood and treasure. To emphasize the point, he asks whether the US should also nation-build in “Somalia, Yemen, and other sovereignty vacuums.” Proponents of withdrawal made the same arguments twenty years ago. They declared that the US had helped the Afghans enough and it was time to leave them to “sort it out.”

Of course a fractured nation such as Afghanistan does not easily “sort it out” when shrewd geopolitical players like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are waiting to step in and tip the scales in favor of their preferred partisans. In the aftermath of the Red Army withdrawal, many of the heroes of the war against the Soviets were left facing ruthless warlords armed with foreign money and weapons. The vacuum created by American withdrawal left Afghanistan open to outside manipulation that was in direct opposition to American interests and security. Today, to that list of outside players may be added China and Russia, larger and more powerful than any of the previous three and possessed of substantial ambitions in Central Asia.

The Taliban takeover was not inevitable in the 1990s. Most of the Afghan freedom fighters were not Islamists or jihadists but proud tribesmen defending their land as had their ancestors for generations. Neither did most Afghans desire a continuance of the corrupt, chaotic, and violent rule of the warlords. Backed by foreign money and arms, the Taliban emerged with promises of stability. The stability they brought was that of Wahhabi repression of indigenous Afghan Islam–and of alliance with and sponsorship of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

America reaped the fruit when unmolested jihadist training camps, hosted by the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, produced hardened fighters who brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon. I was two blocks from the White House that day and watched the black smoke billow across the Potomac, before the Secret Service, with weapons drawn, made us get off the roof, and we joined the throngs leaving downtown via Connecticut Avenue. As is true for many Americans that witnessed these events either in person or on television, such things are seared on my mind.

That said, if the lesson of 9/11 is not that bad things happen when Afghanistan is left as a vacuum for regional players to fill with anti-American radicals, then what is?

While violence is escalating, and the war in Afghanistan is at a tipping point, the war is not lost. There are tribal leaders who understand the value of American and NATO assistance, and they want peace, freedom, and prosperity for their people. They desire neither Taliban nor warlord domination and they are furious with the corruption and ineptitude of the Karzai government. They are also outraged when their people are killed by missiles seeking Taliban targets.

Equally important, there are American officers who understand the need to win the confidence of the tribes and to enlist them, as tribes, in the cause of the greater nation. They recognize that the Afghan warrior will not be won over by a foreign superpower that declines to put its own young men into the field or that refuses to meet him with respect.

An “offshore” war as Will prescribes has the potential to create the opposite result of engagement with the tribes. Mistakes inevitably happen with missiles, hardening opposition among the tribes in whose midst the Taliban must hide to survive and carry out their war. Moreover, as one Afghan chief has told me, for the cost of a single missile, a whole group of local tribal fighters could be recruited to clear their own valleys and villages of Taliban and warlord forces alike. But such a strategy at its most fundamental level requires engagement, not disengagement.

George Will quoted a Dutch officer saying that walking through a southern province of Afghanistan is “like walking through the Old Testament.” Perhaps in such a statement there is an unintentional lesson. The Afghans have indeed been a proud, fierce, and honorbound people since the time Esther was influencing Xerxes to better treat the Israelites. As the Afghans are still such a people, we can look to history for instruction. In that blank page of the Bible that separates the Old Testament from the New, and the Persian Empire from the Roman, Alexander the Great figured out that if you win the tribes, you can win Afghanistan; lose the tribes and you face intractable insurgency. Two millennia later, Disraeli’s Britons and Gorbachev’s Soviets would surely concur. Given the strange consistencies of Afghanistan over time, and the disastrous ramifications of withdrawal two decades ago, we should recognize that knowing when to stop is not nearly as important as learning how to win.



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  1. Gene on September 11, 2009 at 4:19 am

    Well said, Mr. McClellan. I would also refer readers to another warrior’s take on this situation. Ralph Peters wrote an excellent piece in “The Journal of International Security Affairs,” Spring 2009, number 16 titled “Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars” that speaks to this issue as well. In the article Mr. Peters writes, “Our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontation, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves.”

  2. wisner on September 11, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I’m not so sure I agree with all of your arguments here (I appreciate your willingness to share them. My dissent or questioning of them should not be interpreted as accepting George Will’s arguments either, rather a step to discussion of the topic). First, I don’t see China or Russia wanting anything to do with Afghanistan. Russia has enough to deal with with their share of Central Asia and their former …stans. their interests seem to lie with Georgia, Ukraine etc…(no expert here but a quick look over Russia’s actions lately seem to indicate their intentions). Pakistan has always used Afghanistan as a buffer against potential Indian incursion…let them have it. Herat has always seemed to be more of a protectorate of Iran. I just don’t see the regional players getting too involved. Afghanistan seems to have been the truck stop of caravans and invading armies on to bigger and better things. Could it be used to house anti-American radicals? Yes, it could go back to that. However, is that the only reason or is it a good enough reason to stay? If it is why haven’t we done similar actions in other countries with anti-American radicals? Will staying or leaving increase the radicalism within the country? That Afghan cheif you spoke to who said he could clear his valley of Taliban for the cost a single missle…did you happen to read “Killing Bin Laden” by Dalton Fury? This, on the ground Delta commander, might have some interesting insight on that comment from the tribal cheif.
    As I said earlier, my comments should not be read as support for George Will’s argument. I would just like to hear more compelling arguments for both sides.

  3. Exper1Mental on September 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I disagree with Mr McClellan’s views as well as Mr Will’s statements. Both take for granted that the US and NATO should have a say in the running and future of Afghanistan. Furthermore, they both assume that the Afghans and their people are just going to turn to radicalism as soon as the foreign presence is removed.
    Bombing and controlling Afghanistan from a far is a ridiculous notion, while the ‘stick it out till they quit’ strategy 1) has been proven ineffective and 2) will just make a costly war even more costly (in terms of human lives) than anything any radical anti-west country could ever hope to achieve.
    Mr. McClellan mentions Megas Alexandros and points to what is described even in Steven’s books, that in order to rein in Afghanistan he had to control the tribes. The thing is not even he managed to ever subdue Afghanistan, their tribes or even his unruly tribal wife to his will and so he had to compromise. But the US won’t compromise, for them now it is ‘subjection or destruction’. Anything less and it is defeat.
    The Afghan people are not war-loving radicals that wish fire and brimstone to be hailed on the west, they are intelligent, peaceful people that want some freedom of choice about their country’s future. So why not compromise and help int he way the west can help…i.e. through educating their nation and providing aid (monetary and otherwise). This sounds like an option even the most radical Afghan would settle for.

  4. Tim Kerr on September 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    What a country! I like your comments about Alexander. He was astute enough to enlist the aid of the various tribes. But even he knew that his tribal allies were only his allies while he had the means to employ and pay them – and when they shared an enemy. Of course, he did not have drones and high-tech aerial views that the USA and other countries have today. Interestingly, the attitude and treatment of women seems little changed since Alexander’s time – and that was pre Mohammad and Islam. A few Christian soldiers and followers’-on aren’t going to change that attitude much!

    Of course, the question is – shall we stay – or shall we go. The answer is probably “don’t know”. Alexander did not stay long (a couple of years I think). He just wanted a secure route to India. If you stay – your countrymen get pissed off. If you leave…. someone else will move in. Does that matter? In some ways yes. YOU lose any foothold and give up some security within the whole region. In another way, no, it doesn’t matter….. Afghanistan has always had an invader of one sort or another. I YOU leave, then Afghanistan will still be fighting, it will just be some other invader.

    Of course, one of the reasons why the country always seems to have an invader is its tribal nature. An invader can always call upon someone to provide material, accommodation, food, transport -and troops. For payment. And that is where you make a telling point. Afghanis respect individuals (up to a point) but they have no respect for anonymity of drones and badly placed missiles….

    The best answer may be yes, stay – but keep troops on the ground and keep the body count down to acceptable numbers. A difficult task….

  5. Amillennialist on September 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    “if the lesson of 9/11 is not that bad things happen when Afghanistan is left as a vacuum for regional players to fill with anti-American radicals, then what is?”

    Thousands of Americans dead.

    More than fourteen thousand Muslim terrorist attacks since 9/11.

    Hundreds of innocents, including women and children, butchered in Beslan.

    Indonesian Christian schoolgirls beheaded to shouts of “Allahu akbar!”

    70-80 million Hindus slaughtered.

    The indigenous peoples of many nations and several continents enslaved or wiped out over 1400 years.

    All of this suffering and death caused by not “radicals,” or an Afghani “vacuum,” but by Muslims obeying the command of Allah and imitating the example of Muhammad.

    In other words, by Islam.

    A resurgence in the global jihad waged — as knowledge, zeal, and resources allowed — around the world for nearly one and one-half millennia, and we were oblivous to it.

    That’s the lesson to be learned from 9/11.

    And since our political, media, and academic “leaders” insist we bow before it, apologize to it, and subsidize it with American blood and treasure, it seems we’re suicidally-poor students.

    “the Messenger of Allah . . . would say: ‘Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war. . . . When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. . . . Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. . . . If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them . . .'” (Muslim Book 19, Number 4294).

    “fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) . . . ” (Qur’an 9:5).

    “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an 9:29).

    “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter . . . ” (Qur’an 5:33). [Ibn Kathir says of this verse: “‘Wage war’ mentioned here means, oppose and contradict, and it includes disbelief, blocking roads and spreading fear in the fairways. Mischief in the land refers to various types of evil.” So, Muhammad requires execution, crucifixion, or cutting off hands and feet from opposite sides for “disbelief.”]

    “Allah’s Apostle said: ‘I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle . . . ‘” (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 2, Number 24).

    “It is not for any prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land. Ye desire the lure of this world and Allah desireth (for you) the Hereafter, and Allah is Mighty, Wise” (Qur’an 8:67).

    “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘I have been made victorious with terror'” (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 220).

    “Allah’s Apostle was asked, ‘What is the best deed?’ He replied, ‘To believe in Allah and His Apostle (Muhammad).’ The questioner then asked, ‘What is the next (in goodness)?’ He replied, ‘To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah’s Cause.’ The questioner again asked, ‘What is the next (in goodness)?’ He replied, ‘To perform Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). . .'” (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 2, Number 25).

    “Say to the Unbelievers, if (now) they desist (from Unbelief), their past would be forgiven them; but if they persist, the punishment of those before them is already (a matter of warning for them). And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone (in the whole of the world). But if they cease (worshipping others besides Allah), then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do” (Qur’an 8:38; ayah 39 from Noble Qur’an).

  6. Amillennialist on September 16, 2009 at 1:42 pm


    So much for those “fiercely defensive” Afghani tribes.

    You don’t think they were persuaded by love and sweet reason, do you?

    They too were unable to resist jihad.

  7. Geoffrey Britain on September 16, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    “I would just like to hear more compelling arguments for both sides.” wisner

    As would I. I’m no expert but it seems to me that all of the reasons given are relatively minor aspects of the strategic situation.

    It’s true that tactically, Afghanistan in and of itself is of little concern to the west.

    That said, there is little doubt in my mind that should Obama adopt George Will’s prescription it will be just a matter of time till the Taliban reassert control over Afghanistan. The logical next consequence is the reemergence of Al Qaeda training camps and centers of operation and planning, just as before.

    But that in my humble opinion is NOT the great danger, though it certainly would facilitate the danger to which I refer emerging. The great danger is nuclear terrorist attacks, i.e. Al Qaeda acquiring nukes.

    Pakistan falling to the Taliban would greatly facilitate that eventuality coming to fruition.

    Pakistan is in danger of falling to the Taliban, at present, as we speak.

    The Taliban is now intimately familiar with Pakistan and no longer look at its acquisition as a pipe dream but well within the realm of possibilities. Any future Taliban controlled Afghanistan government will inevitably look to the securing of control over Pakistan as a necessary ‘insurance policy’ against future US aggression.

    Iran’s soon to come acquisition of nuclear capability makes the threat of Pakistan under Taliban control and providing Al Qaeda with nukes, no less a concern. We face multiple challenges with the announcement of Chavez’s Venuzuela intent to pursue nuclear technology just the latest new threat.

    Nuclear proliferation is now inevitable and it’s just a matter of time till we experience a nuclear terrorist attack. As unpleasant a future reality as it is to contemplate, its as predictable as a Japanese Kubuki play. The various ‘actors’ on stage will have it no other way.

  8. Anonymous on September 17, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Hire the tribes to fight the Taliban. Monitor their progress and give award fees for outstanding work. Get rid of Karzai and his gang or just ignore him. Pour millions into intelligence and buy many drones with assorted missiles. Revive the sapper concept and underwrite the development of more ranger and Seal battalions to strike from off-shore. Strike targets of Taliban opportunity with precision air strikes. Get our boys out of there. It’s terrain is impossible to fight the war we must with the Taliban.

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