Home Webb on Afghanistan: ‘How do we define our enemy?’

Webb on Afghanistan: ‘How do we define our enemy?’


Statement from U.S. Sen. Jim Webb

I have great regard for the careful process employed by this administration in an effort both to define a new approach for the long-standing military commitment in Afghanistan and to put an operational framework in place for our responsible withdrawal. At the same time, I intend to continue to call on the Administration to clarify to the American public and Congress how it defines success and how we reach an endpoint.

Since early 2009, I have repeatedly said that the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan must proceed based on the following realities: (1) the fragility of the Afghan government; (2) whether building a national army of a considerable scale is achievable; (3) whether an increased U.S. military presence will ultimately have a positive effect in the country, or whether we will be seen as an occupying force; and (4) the linkage of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, in the coming days I intend to examine the administration’s plan to see how it addresses these criteria and how it will impact our troops.

Following the president’s address, there has been a great deal of discussion on the date that the United States will begin to draw down military forces and transfer security responsibility. Just as important is a focus on creating the conditions to enable this transfer of responsibility. The administration has not defined them with sufficient clarity. Our strategy is sound only if framed with clearly defined and attainable goals, an understandable endpoint, and a regional perspective. And we must avoid the inherent risks of allowing our success in Afghanistan to be defined by events that are largely beyond our ability to control.

At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, no true central government had existed in that country since 1979. The Afghan agreements in Bonn in December 2001 led to a new constitution, an interim government, and the national election of 2004. The agreements also gave considerably more power to a central government in a country that is very disparate and far removed from the concept of central governance during its history. The result today is a weak, fragile Afghani central government whose power on paper is far greater than in reality. It is plagued by a lack of capacity and rampant corruption. Many observers now say that power needs to be devolved to a more decentralized form of governance consistent with tribal realities to achieve the Afghani government’s long-term viability.

We are ramping up to have 100,000 troops deployed, along with many tens of thousands of American contractors and civilians, to implement a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The American presence will be strong in a country that has a historical and very successful resistance to foreign influence. This greatly enlarged presence is a concern. We run the risk, well-rooted in Afghanistan’s history, that the United States will be perceived as an occupying force instead of a presence seeking to assist the Afghans in improving their stability and development.

An important question that remains to be answered is: how do we define our enemy in Afghanistan? When we talk about the Taliban, we interchange terms which aren’t particularly interchangeable. There are three different types of actors associated with the Taliban. First, we had those in a vicious government, involved in the initial invasion, which the United States assisted in getting rid of. Second, we have an ideologically-charged group that currently operates principally in Pakistan, associated with the forces of international terrorism. We have a third group, presumably growing with the greatest speed, that is viewed by many Afghans as something of a regional militia defending local interests and that doesn’t particularly want to threaten the United States’ interests outside of Afghanistan.

I have said consistently that countering international terrorism requires highly maneuverable forces able to strike an intrinsically mobile enemy. The departure of Al Qaeda from Iraq and, in large measure from Afghanistan as well, demonstrates why more maneuverable U.S. forces are to be favored against mobile international terrorist movements. In each instance, Al Qaeda relocated to other areas, including Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. It is important that our military retain the same maneuverability.

On the personnel front, our active duty military has been deployed repeatedly for combat operations since 2001. Guard and reserve components also have deployed at levels not envisioned when we introduced the all-volunteer force. We are now in uncharted territory as it relates to the long-term impacts these deployments are having on the well-being of our men and women in uniform, especially the Army and Marine Corps. I introduced dwell-time legislation nearly three years ago to ensure that we achieved a better balance in deployment cycles with a minimal interval before follow-on deployments. The new commitment of 30,000 U.S. troops will put additional strains on our forces and their families, yet the administration has not addressed these implications. I plan to press the administration on this point to ensure we are more vigilant in safeguarding the welfare of our men and women in uniform.



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.