Op-Eds

Mar 20 2012

Time for the President to Talk About Afghanistan

By: Rep. Buck McKeon

(Politico) Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, is to testify Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee. After a month of increased tensions, the American people and Congress understand the many obstacles to success. But I believe that Allen will also carry a message of hope and progress that reflects the true nature of this war.

He is a no-nonsense career Marine with a reputation for straight talk. His testimony is sure to set straight Congress and the American people. Counterinsurgency is the toughest type of war for a democracy, and these past few months have put American will to the test.

Afghanistan is a tough fight. Examine the entire war effort through the myopic lens of individual tragedies and it can appear hopeless.

But part of honest Afghanistan testimony includes a message of progress and success. Given the recent war reporting, such a message will very likely strike a discordant note to many Americans.

It will do so because coverage of the war has left us all heartsick. We are all too familiar with images of protests inspired by the accidental burning of Qurans, or the shocking news of the actions of one soldier we lost to his demons. Those stories are important. But they are also noisy; and they have drowned out larger context.

Allen is also set to discuss our progress with Afghan security forces. He will talk about provinces handed over to Afghan control and the successes of our allies, who have deployed tens of thousands of troops to the fight.

What he will say may sound new to the few Americans who watch congressional hearings. It won’t even reach those who have already given up on Afghanistan and are ready for our troops to come home. It will sound new — but it isn’t.

Whatever soapbox a four-star Marine general can command is nothing compared with that of the presidency. When it comes to Afghanistan, the presidential bully pulpit is vacant; the teleprompter is dark and one of the most rhetorical presidencies in U.S. history is silent as it looks to the exits in Afghanistan.

Ninety-one thousand Americans are deployed under President Barack Obama’s orders to surge forces to the region. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, some Americans are convinced that strategy is a failure. Such perceptions undercut our troops, undercut their commanders and embolden the enemies who target them every day.

When our war in Iraq was at its nadir in 2006, and popular opinion sent President George W. Bush’s opinion polls plummeting, it would have been easy for him to abandon the Iraqis to their own fate. Instead, he surged troops for a counterinsurgency strategy.

Sending more forces was only part of the plan. The president directed a public campaign to broadcast the success of that strategy, sending a clear message to America’s enemies.

“There is no doubt in my mind we will prevail.” Bush told U.S. service members. “It will require patience and determination. It will require our military to do what you have done every time this government has asked of you. It will require the full resolve of not only this government but future governments that will be following this one. Every time this country has been tested, we’ve responded.”

In addition to the more than 20 speeches on Iraq made after the surge was announced in January 2007, the president made communications on the war a priority for the Departments of State and Defense and his National Security Council. Regardless of how you might have felt about the Iraq surge, you had no doubts about how it was going.

In contrast, this president has made only three speeches on Afghanistan after he adopted a similar surge strategy in 2009. Amid the apologies and the talk of exit strategies, the president has made little mention of progress or commitment.

Where are the fireside chats? The Oval Office addresses? With the click of a mouse, the president can tell millions of people incredible stories of heroism and daring that are the standard — not the exception — in Afghanistan.

Through his silence, the Afghan people assume that the president’s priority is withdrawal. This can only weaken their resolve in the face of a persistent Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In a war that will be won or lost on the battlefield of American resolve, the president has the oratory talent and intelligence to stand among history’s great wartime leaders. If he harnesses his abilities — and gives skilled combat leaders such as Allen the political and logistical support to do what is necessary — we will leave Afghanistan with our heads held high, its people freed of tyranny and the world a safer place.

Rep. BuckMcKeon (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Armed Service Committee.