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Attacks In Kabul a Sorry P.R. Coup For the Taliban

The Afghan insurgents are grandstanding. Today’s attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul aimed not so much to inflict casualties, as to snare headlines attesting to their ability to carry the fight to the alliance powers, even to their inner sancta.

It is a P.R. coup for the Taliban. And it becomes increasingly easy to place this and every future reversal in Afghanistan at the feet of the president's half-measure strategy for battling Al Qaeda.

Mr. Obama's strategy was flawed from the start. He gave commanders half the troops they requested. As a result, they had only enough troops to address half of Afghanistan’s most troubled regions. To make matters worse, he announced a date for the troop drawdown even before the troop build-up began.

The results proved all too predictable. U.S. counterinsurgency worked fine as far as it went, clearing the Taliban out of its home turf. But when U.S. forces turned to the task of driving them from the Eastern border regions, Mr. Obama cut the manpower.

Now there are too few U.S. troops to finish implementing the counterinsurgency and building up the capacity of Afghan forces to deny the Taliban from re-establishing themselves in their previous strongholds. Moreover, Mr. Obama's lack of resolve has done little to bolster the Pakistanis to get serious on their side of the border.

From now on, every small-bore attack like today’s will be seen as another blow chasing the U.S. out of Afghanistan. 

Not only has the president crippled a strategy that could have worked, he has replaced it with one that is sure to fail.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the U.S. tried to manage the world with a plethora of covert operations--believing they were an easy-button solution for hard problems. History proved they are not.

Ike oversaw 170 major covert actions in eight years. Even after the Bay of Pigs debacle, John F. Kennedy could not kick the habit. He ran up 163 major covert operations in less than three years.

All this cloak-and-dagger produced, at best, a checkered record. The Cold War only got colder. Now Mr. Obama wants to make this strategy, which makes even less sense for the 21st Century, the cornerstone of American security.

The president believes America can be kept safe with a "small footprint" defense—a limited number of special-forces boots, smart missiles and attack drones that can play "whack-a-mole" with a selected number of targets. Covert operations and surgical strikes can be useful tactically, but they are no good as a world-wide strategy.

Extensive reliance on covert operations produces a plethora of problems. Since they are covert, they lack accountability and transparency. And, since they carry a relatively modest "price tag," presidents are prone to call them into play far too casually. They easily become a substitute for serious engagement and commitment. Since the footprint is small, operations wind up depending heavily on "locals" for intelligence or are executed from afar with scant knowledge of what is really going on on the ground. You end up raining drones on the wrong targets.

This is not to say there is not valuable place for select covert operations, but they are no substitute for strategy.

The Taliban will use today’s attacks as a new chapter in their continuing narrative that they are “driving” the U.S. out. Once they have established a new sanctuary in Afghanistan, there is little doubt that the remnants of Al Qeada will flow back in, and the terrorist organization will reconstitute itself. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama will peck at them from afar--just as Presidents Clinton and Bush did before 9/11. In a few years we'll be right back where we were on September 10, 2001.

The seeds of the next disaster are being sown today by a White House too anxious to take a time out in the war on terror.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.