"America, we are passing through a time of great trial," declared President Obama during a televised address to 4,000 cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The date was December 1, 2009, and the circumstances were dramatic: In addition to announcing the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan – fewer than his top generals had requested – the commander-in-chief also specified that the U.S. would begin withdrawing virtually all its forces from the theater starting in 2011. OBAMA ADDS TROOPS, BUT MAPS EXIT PLAN read the New York Times headline.
Watching the speech in his headquarters in Eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, was Michael G. Waltz, a Green Beret and U.S. Army Special Forces commander who had watched men die right in front of him and who was struggling at the time to enlist the cooperation of local tribe elders in the coalition fight against the Taliban. When the president had finished speaking, one of Waltz's officers turned to him incredulously, as Waltz recalled in a recent visit to "The Foxhole," and said: "That's like Franklin Delano Roosevelt announcing D-Day but then announcing its withdrawal! What do you think the Germans would have done?" "He's just told the world we are leaving," said another dumbstruck officer. "Who the hell is going to risk their life to work with us now?"
In his memoir "Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret's Battles from Washington to Afghanistan," published by Potomac Books this past November, Waltz detailed the "immediate" effects of the Obama speech on the broader war effort, which the author described as "pretty negative" and "right now still playing out":
Out on one of the most remote borders in the world the Moqbil elder [we had been courting] had somehow heard of the speech. He didn't even acknowledge the surge. He heard only "America is leaving."
Sadly I had experienced a nearly identical encounter with Mullah Ghafoorzai of the Mangal tribe in Khost [Province] just a few days earlier. I had developed a relationship with him over the latter half of 2009 after the so-called pine nut wars with the Moqbil. He was a respected leader of a large Mangal subtribe and had several hundred very well-equipped arbakai reporting to him. By December 2009, after dozens of cups of tea and hours of discussions with me, Ghafoorzai was ready to commit his men to openly oppose the Haqqanis. I hoped it would be one of the key achievements of my tour. But in our final meeting to secure his cooperation, Ghafoorzai went cold on me. He normally greeted me with a large bear hug and an animated discussion about our families and the goings-on in the valley his tribe inhabited. But this time he remained seated on the pillows lining the far end of the wall as I entered. After some awkward pleasantries, I found out why. "We always suspected you would abandon us. Now your president has said it," he said sternly. "I am sorry, Commander Mike, but my men cannot work with you now. The Haqqanis will target us daily. They already have a bounty on me. Without your support, they will eventually get to every one of us and our families."
The nuances of the president's strategy were lost on him. "I am sorry, my friend. Several years is nothing in this part of the world. Until America is ready to pledge its grandchildren to stand shoulder to shoulder with my grandchildren in this war, I cannot work with you."
Waltz's recollections of the Afghan War may be unique in nature, as little time elapsed between his stint as a special adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney on South Asia and counterterrorism, work that placed the young officer smack in the middle of the policymaking action in the Situation Room, and Waltz's arrival at the Pakistani border, where he implemented on the ground the policies he had helped shape back in Washington. Few individual players in a war get to see the conflict from such dramatically different angles. He's been "the boots on the ground," and he's also been a pair of wing-tips on the ground.
And that wasn't all. Waltz also did a tour in the office of the secretary of defense, staying on during the transition from Donald Rumsfeld to Robert Gates. Now a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, Waltz told "The Foxhole" that the disheartening outcome of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan – where, yes, the Taliban has been deposed and girls attend school in greater numbers than ever, but where corruption and tribal rivalries retard progress and the U.S. remains locked in stalemate with resurgent Taliban forces – can be attributed to a confluence of factors.
In addition to what he sees as the deleterious effects of the West Point address, Waltz cited our failure to "resource the war appropriately." The chief drain on those resources was the Iraq War; and while Waltz does not challenge the rationale for that intervention, he noted that it diminished the ability of the United States to prosecute the war in Afghanistan most effectively. As Waltz told me: "No nation can fight two wars as well as it can fight one." He also concluded that NATO wasn't ready for the central role the coalition thrust upon it, and that the ambivalence of a key U.S. ally in the war on terror – Pakistan – also served to undermine coalition progress. "No counterinsurgency that I know of," Waltz said, "has been successful when the insurgents have sanctuary next door."
Note: All proceeds from "Warrior Diplomat" are going to a veteran's charity called The Green Beret Foundation.