August 9, 2011 | The Corner, National Review Online

The SEAL Tragedy

August 9, 2011 | The Corner, National Review Online

The SEAL Tragedy

In the WSJ, Max Boot has an insightful, and at times moving, account of the failed mission this weekend, in which the Taliban shot down a helicopter killing 30 Americans, most members of the legendary SEAL Team Six, along with eight Afghans. The SEALs were on a rescue mission — another U.S. contingent, Max explains, was caught in a firefight, which is how the enemy knew to look for the help that was on the way.

As I’ve said before, too many times those of us who are critical of ambitious nation-building in the Middle East have over-emphasized the democracy project aspect of the mission (to which we object — at least insofar as it risks our military to accomplish this dubious feat) and overlooked that a prominent feature of the mission is taking the fight to the enemy. As Max writes:

… U.S. commandos generate intelligence, locate targets, and then swoop down on them. The “operators” are the model of manly understatement. They don’t brag but convey a quiet confidence that they know what they are doing—and they do. As has been reported in several outlets, the Joint Special Operations Command—which comprises Navy SEALs, the Army’s Delta Team, the Air Force’s “Night Stalker” helicopter crews and other, even more clandestine forces—carries out a dozen operations a night in Afghanistan alone. Other JSOC contingents carry out raids in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other lands where al Qaeda and its ilk operate. Most of these operations go so smoothly—resulting in a “jackpot,” a wanted suspect killed or captured—that there is no mention of them in the press.

Max goes on to argue that the counterterrorism raids are necessary but insufficient to defeat the Taliban and its allies. A successful counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, he emphasizes, requires integration of these raids with “a critical number of boots on the ground,” which enable our guys to hold the hostile areas that have been secured by clearing out the enemy.

This is where the COIN guys lose me. The idea is to clear and hold until we can turn our territorial gains over to competent Afghan forces, which we are training while, simultaneously, the Afghan population we are securing comes to buy in to the Afghan government we are nurturing. I won’t belabor the record by repeating the reasons why I don’t think this can work (certainly not in a few short years) and why it’s fantasy to think Afghan Muslims are going to side with us against their fellow Afghan Muslims — especially when the Obama administration is powerfully signaling that it wants to negotiate with, rather than annihilate, the Taliban, and get out of Afghanistan ASAP.

I am all for putting more boots on the ground — lots more. But only if what we’re trying to achieve is victory. That means victory over our enemies and their ultimate state sponsor, Iran — which, despite its historic tensions with the Taliban, is delighted to assist the Taliban if the goal is killing Americans. We need to defeat the mullahs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and everyplace else they are promoting anti-American terror, including Tehran … why we have made their territory immune from attack while they kill our troops with impunity in every other country is beyond me. This is not the Soviet Union we’re talking about here — it’s Iran.

If we made a concrete enemy, Iran, our focal point — instead of abstractions like “democracy,” “freedom,” “violent extremism,” and “counterterrorism” — our Middle East policy would be a lot more coherent and successful. Not necessarily invading Iran — although not taking that option off the table — but making clear that we seek both regime change and the defeat of Iran wherever in the world it operates. Moreover, for those committed to the freedom agenda, maybe I’m wrong that Islamic countries are not promising places for its advance, but you have to defeat the enemy first for freedom to have a prayer. Achieving victory over Iran and its confederation of terrorist regimes and factions, rather than the tenuous accommodation we seem to be aiming at, is an unavoidable precondition to real democracy promotion.

If we are not willing to make this commitment, to double down and defeat the enemy, then we must resign ourselves to this downward spiral in which (a) after all our enormous sacrifice, Iran continues extending its tentacles through the countries we’ve liberated and, while turning increasingly anti-American, those countries come to experience a different tyranny; and (b) we lose more of our heroic troops as their diminishing numbers make their counterterrorism missions more dangerous and degrade their capacity for self-defense — against enemies who want to suggest to the world that Allah’s mujahideen are chasing us out of the region and vanquishing a second superpower. 

That brings me to a final quote from Max Boot:

The loss underscores how heroic these men are—volunteers multiple times over who give up hope of a normal life to spend month after month deployed in one war zone after another chasing some of the most dangerous terrorists on earth. They know the risks they run: All Special Operations headquarters have a “wall of honor” displaying the pictures of fallen heroes—all supremely fit and dedicated young men struck down in the prime of life. Yet their comrades routinely strap on body armor and mount helicopters, night after night, knowing that their picture could soon hang on that wall.

While we should be in awe of special operators and their accomplishments, we should keep their capabilities in perspective: They cannot win a war by themselves.

No they can’t. That’s up to us. We either honor the memory of these brave warriors by resolving to win the war, with all that entails, or we should get out now before we lose more of them.