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A Realistic Look At Obama's Afghanistan Strategy

[ Posted Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 – 17:27 PST ]

At first glance, it seems like nobody's happy with President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, announced Tuesday night before an audience of West Point cadets. Voices from the left and right (for different reasons, of course) are decrying the president's decision as not what they wanted to hear. Hard-liners are attempting to score political points, from both sides of the aisle. But when you strip away the heated rhetoric, what remains? To me, the core question becomes: "Is Obama's new policy a good thing or a bad thing, and does it have a chance of working?" OK, that's really two questions. And, for now, I think the answer to both is: "Maybe." Maybe, and then again, maybe not.

This is an unsatisfying answer, I realize. But war is not science -- there are no predictions of the future anyone can state with 100 percent confidence. So allow me to make an attempt at analyzing the reality of the situation, without all the bluster coming from some people who really should know better (again, on both sides of the divide). It's a complicated subject, so I hope you'll forgive me for jumping around a bit in writing about it. I also state as a preface that I'm no military expert, but rather an armchair-quarterback type of guy. I claim no inside knowledge of the situation, instead relying on what Hercule Poirot was wont to call "exercising the little grey cells" of the brain.

The first thing that strikes me in a general way is that any of America's failed wars over the past fifty years or so are denounced afterwards (with perfect 20/20 hindsight) using two main themes -- "there was no defined mission" and "there was no exit strategy." Variations on these themes abound, but that's basically it in a nutshell. Obama, being a student of history, is likely aware of this. So he tried to avoid both mistakes in his new strategy. He defined the mission as best he could, and differentiated what was new in his way of thinking from the previous mission. And he laid out his exit strategy. Whether either of these will succeed or not remains to be seen. But I do give him credit for at least making the attempt to answer the perennial military complaints of "mission creep" and "no way out" while announcing his escalation of the conflict.

One side issue I bring up merely to shoot down is whether this is now "Obama's war" or not. The proper answer to "Is this 'Obama's war' now?" can only be: "What a stupid question!" We simply do not name wars for presidents in America. Whether the media or the politicians want to call it "Obama's war" or not is completely irrelevant to history. Was Vietnam "LBJ's war" or "Nixon's war"? Well, both... and neither. More accurately it was "JFK's war," but everyone tends to forget Kennedy's involvement. But I digress. When America goes to war -- rightly or wrongly, and successfully or unsuccessfully -- it is America's war. Period. By the same logic, Afghanistan is neither (or both) "Bush's war" or "Obama's war." It's a silly question, which can be proven easily: name me one war in America's history that is forever linked to a president's name. You can't, because this is a very recent obsession by the media and bears no relation to the reality of how history is written. Personally, I don't believe I ever called Iraq or Afghanistan "Bush's war," and will also refrain from calling either "Obama's war" -- because I think the practice of doing so (either way) is a bit inane.

Barack Obama announced an interesting middle ground Tuesday night in his new strategy, one that few people have actually noticed. Obama's grand compromise was to go with a Bush-like "surge" while at the same time adopting the Democratic talking point of the same era -- a "timetable for withdrawal." Whether this will bear fruit or not remains, of course, to be seen. But it is an interesting decision when looked at politically. Obama is, in essence, saying: "Let's try it both ways, and see if it works." He chose to send 30,000 more American soldiers in to Afghanistan for eighteen months, and appears likely to get at least 5,000 more N.A.T.O. troops to bolster them.

It's easy to try to compare "Obama's surge" to "Bush's surge," but ultimately a rather pointless exercise, since Afghanistan is not Iraq. The enemies are different, for one, as is the whole socio-political side of the conflict. This type of comparison may be worthwhile at a much smaller level (which tactics we've learned in Iraq would be useful in Afghanistan, for instance), but simply don't hold up at the macro level.

President Bush short-changed the war in Afghanistan almost from the very beginning. He never sent enough troops or enough equipment to achieve his stated mission there. This is one of the major reasons the conflict has dragged on for eight years (and counting). Bush -- although conservatives have conveniently forgotten this fact -- listened to only one military voice on Iraq, and his name was Dick Rumsfeld. Bush and ignored his "generals on the ground" when they begged him for more troops and more equipment. He never performed a strategic review of the Afghan situation, being content instead to let it sit on the back burner while we went merrily off to overthrow Saddam Hussein instead.

None of this is to say that the Afghan situation was ever "winnable" to begin with, I should mention. Throwing thousands of troops at the country may eventually fail, no matter who is in the White House at the time. Just ask the Soviets. Or Alexander the Great. The country is not known as "the graveyard of empires" for nothing. But anyone who believes that the war in Afghanistan is indeed "winnable" should be immediately questioned as to why President Bush didn't even make the attempt. And to explain their silence on the issue for the past eight years.

When Barack Obama came into office -- although many of his supporters have conveniently forgotten this fact -- he did so proclaiming Afghanistan the "good war" as opposed to the "bad war" in Iraq. He immediately doubled -- doubled -- the amount of troops Bush left there. Obama had promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he was making good on his campaign promise in a big way (he only ever talked about adding roughly 10,000 troops on the campaign trail). His thinking was to throw a bunch of troops at the problem, and see if it got better or worse. It got worse. So he took three months to conduct a review of the situation. And then he announced another 30,000 troops were going in, with a new mission and a new strategy. In doing so, he relied on the advice of Robert Gates, his Secretary of Defense, who was also Bush's Secretary of Defense when the Iraq "surge" was announced.

Critics of Obama who berate him for "dithering" over the decision for three months were completely and utterly silent while Bush took exactly the same amount of time to come up with a similar new strategy in Iraq, it bears mentioning. There simply are no critics of Obama's "delay" now who were saying the same thing when Bush took three months to review his Iraq strategy -- meaning their criticism is nothing more than partisan sniping, and can thus be ignored.

Also easily ignored are the critics of the timetable for withdrawal. Because, once again, when President Bush announced his Iraq "surge," it came with exactly the same timetable for withdrawal -- 18 months, to be precise. That's how long Bush's surge was supposed to last. The only difference is Obama said so explicitly in his speech, whereas Bush did nothing to spotlight his timetable for the end of his surge, preferring to mention it in the fine print only. This was because the concept of a "timetable for withdrawal" became a football in American politics, to be kicked around by both sides. Democrats pushed hard for a concrete timetable, but even Bush was negotiating such a timetable his last year in office (although he tried to rename it the Orwellian phrase "aspirational goals for a time horizon," a label which was roundly ridiculed and thereafter ignored). What Bush eventually had to accept from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was, in actuality, a harder timeline for withdrawal than even most Democrats were arguing for.

Part of the problem is that there are two timelines here, a subtle difference which many arguing about Obama's timetable are ignoring or willfully misunderstanding. There is a "timeline for withdrawal," as in: getting all American troops out of the country; and then there is a "timeline to wind down the surge" which would, in essence, return the country's troop levels to the pre-surge baseline. The surge timeline is the one Obama is talking about. But, much as they did during the presidential campaign, Obama's opponents are trying to oversimplify any use of "timetable" or "withdrawal" as equating to: "precipitous withdrawal," or even: "surrendering." This assumes both the White House and the Pentagon to be complete and utter morons, I should point out.

To be clear, what Obama actually spoke about was the beginning of removing the extra surge troops in Afghanistan, in July of 2011. He did not announce some "date certain" that all American troops would be out of the country. He did not announce that he was going to withdraw a single troop just by looking at a calendar and ignoring the situation on the ground. He hedged his language, because in war you have to hedge your bets. This was apparent in what the administration's spokesmen and spokeswomen have since said up on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post has a good article on this subtlety:

[I]n questioning top administration officials Wednesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly learned that this withdrawal timeline was less a commitment than an aspiration.

First, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered this qualifier to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "Our current plan is that we will begin the transition ... in July of 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) found more softness in the pullout promise when he asked Gates if the deadline "may not include immediately a withdrawal of our forces."

"That is correct," the secretary said, adding that "we're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away."

The 18-month deadline was fast expiring, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) delivered the coup de grace. "Is it possible," he asked, "to reach the conclusion it is not wise to withdraw anyone in July 2011?"

"The president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions," Gates answered.

"The president has choices," agreed Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton concurred.

The trio left themselves so much wiggle room that it's a wonder they didn't slip out of their chairs.

All snarkiness aside, though (nice use of "aspiration" -- harks back to the Bush language on Iraq), what this exchange sounded like to me was a bunch of military guys exasperated at the sheer stupidity of politicians, put on like a mask for public consumption, since they so obviously know how ridiculous their questions truly are. What Hillary and the generals were probably itching to say instead was: "What idiot would keep a political promise made a year and a half ago and completely ignore the situation on the ground? Do you really take the president for that type of idiot? Or are you just posturing to make a political point?"

Once again, what President Obama announced was the goal -- depending, as always, on conditions on the ground -- of beginning the drawdown of the extra forces he is sending in to Afghanistan in eighteen months. Nothing more, nothing less. It's amazing that I even have to point this out, but as I said it has been willfully misunderstood and misrepresented by so many that I believe it is necessary. To reinforce this, let's look at what it is not.

Obama did not announce the date all American troops will be out of Afghanistan. He did not surrender to the Taliban. He did not state that he will keep this timetable no matter what. He did not say that he would not change this date or make other adjustments later, such as one year from now when he reviews the situation again. He did not promise any individual soldier that they would be home for Christmas in 2011. He did not lay out a full timetable for withdrawal. He did not set an end date for American troops to be in Afghanistan. And he most assuredly did not send any sort of message to our enemies that we're just going to cut and run in July, 2011.

I should also point out that many from the anti-war crowd wish Obama would indeed have made a few of those promises -- or ones even more drastic.

Afghanistan is not Iraq -- this is something everyone should realize as well. What worked in Iraq may not work in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not the same as the groups we were fighting in Iraq. The end game in both countries is going to most likely look a lot different. And we're going to have to make some compromises eventually, in order to leave. We had to make compromises in Iraq (such as walled neighborhoods, paying groups off who had killed American soldiers, and turning a blind eye to a lot of things the American public really wouldn't approve of), and we will likely have to make compromises in Afghanistan as well (such as actually dealing with individual Taliban groups in the same manner as we dealt with the "Sunni Awakening" groups, and such as turning a blind eye to many things the American public really doesn't support -- like the subjugation of women, for instance, in Taliban-held areas). As well as ignoring a lot of rampant corruption in both places (which is par for the course in any war's aftermath, sad to say).

Having said all of that, we return to our two basic questions: "Is Obama's new strategy a good thing or a bad thing, and does it have a chance of working?" Obama's strategy is pretty close to the "middle" strategy presented to him by General McChrystal. Another subtlety many have ignored is that McChrystal didn't "demand" 40,000 new troops, he was asked for a report on three options -- go small, go medium, and go big. His "small" answer was an additional 10,000 troops, which he said would likely fail. His "big" answer was 80,000 more troops, which he said had a good chance of success. But his "middle" answer got all the press -- his analysis of what would happen if we added 40,000 more troops. We are now going to see if McChrystal was right when he predicted a much better chance of success with this troop level. The Pentagon is now strongly behind Obama's new strategy of 30,000 more American troops and 5,000-10,000 more N.A.T.O. troops. I have not heard a single dissenting voice from any high-ranking military spokesman since Obama gave his speech. This is because Obama took the time to hear them out, present other ideas, and in the end, get them on board with his strategy. There are plenty of Republicans out there badmouthing Obama's plan, and plenty of pundits (the "101st Keyboard Division" as they're known) doing the same or worse. But -- tellingly -- there are no generals out there doing so.

So the Pentagon is on board with Obama. This doesn't mean his strategy can be called better or worse -- or has more or less likelihood of success. But it does count for something.

As I said, I have no easy answers. Not knowing nearly enough about the true situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and not having a crystal ball, the best I can say is that it's going to take some time to see whether Obama's surge is seen as a success or a failure. I have a suspicion that what happens in Pakistan is going to influence the outcome a lot more than anything America does in Afghanistan at this point.

The most interesting thing that may come out of Obama's speech is that for the first time on a major issue, he may get true bipartisan support in Congress for his escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Republicans know that they can complain around the edges about Obama's "timetable" (by attempting to distort it into something it just isn't), but in the end most of them will likely support the president on the issue. At the same time, Democrats will be pulled between praise for the timetable, and condemnation of the escalation, or of the war itself. But, as they showed between 2006 and 2008, they are simply not going to take any drastic action like cutting off war funding. There may be a squabble about "paying for the surge," but that is a subject for another day (and one I also feel has a good chance of some actual bipartisan support, for completely different reasons). So a large part of Republicans in Congress and a smaller part of Democrats in Congress are likely going to eventually support President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy. That sounds to me like the definition of "bipartisan," and it will be interesting to see in the future who will get harmed politically for either standing by the president or standing in opposition. Which, again, would require a crystal ball to tell, at this point.

 

-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

7 Comments on “A Realistic Look At Obama's Afghanistan Strategy”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    "I have not heard a single dissenting voice from any high-ranking military spokesman since Obama gave his speech. This is because Obama took the time to hear them out, present other ideas, and in the end, get them on board with his strategy. There are plenty of Republicans out there badmouthing Obama's plan, and plenty of pundits (the "101st Keyboard Division" as they're known) doing the same or worse. But — tellingly — there are no generals out there doing so."

    Chris, it's that 11-Dimensional Chess again. Obama spent three months creating a consensus. What's more, his decision has had an interesting effect on the media, which -- in the process of trying to find fault in the case for war -- has finally discovered the mistakes made in Afghanistan from 2001-2008. I noticed CNN this morning interviewing the author of Jawbreaker about the Bush decisions that let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora; they had the "Developing Story" chyron up for something that happened 8 years ago.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That was an excellent piece, Chris...a realistic look indeed!

    Why can't you post this at HP - it is so sorely needed there!

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    At first glance, it seems like nobody's happy with President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, announced Tuesday night before an audience of West Point cadets.

    Or, another accurate characterization is that everybody found SOMETHING to be happy about in President Obama's Afghanistan strategy.

    But, I have always been a "Cup Is Half Full" kinda guy. :D

    "Is Obama's new policy a good thing or a bad thing, and does it have a chance of working?"

    I hope this wasn't a rhetorical question. :D

    Obama's NEW plan is a good thing, insofar as he has given General McChrystal pretty much the troops he asked for. McChrystal wanted 40K and Obama gave him 30K. The balance of 10K should be able to be made up by NATO forces so, on the face of things, Obama did make good on his promise to listen to the generals in the field.

    However, Obama's did a bad bad thing by setting a timetable for departure. A good military leader knows that you NEVER, EVER telegraph your battle plans.

    As for if it will work. Too many variables to make a good guess... I will say, though, that Obama's deadline to be out by Jul 2011 is laughable at best. It will come back and bite him on the arse during the 2012 Elections, I guarantee..

    It's easy to try to compare "Obama's surge" to "Bush's surge," but ultimately a rather pointless exercise, since Afghanistan is not Iraq. The enemies are different, for one, as is the whole socio-political side of the conflict. This type of comparison may be worthwhile at a much smaller level (which tactics we've learned in Iraq would be useful in Afghanistan, for instance), but simply don't hold up at the macro level.

    What you say is true to a certain point. You cannot compare the POLITICAL situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But, I don't think you give enough importance to the tactical level. An insurgency is an insurgency is an insurgency. Minor details might differ here or there, but not enough to drastically alter the tactics.

    "A difference which makes no difference IS no difference."
    -Commander Spock

    Throwing thousands of troops at the country may eventually fail, no matter who is in the White House at the time. Just ask the Soviets.

    You really can't compare the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with the current NATO engagement. There are many MANY differences, not the least of which NATO forces are not boobie trapping children's toys, like Soviet forces were.

    It's like comparing apples and Eskimos.

    Both engagements take place in Afghanistan. That is where any similarity ends.

    I have not heard a single dissenting voice from any high-ranking military spokesman since Obama gave his speech. This is because Obama took the time to hear them out, present other ideas, and in the end, get them on board with his strategy.

    Or, more likely, there is no dissenting voices from the high-ranking military because they saw what happened to McChrystal when he put out a dissenting voice. :D

    Other than the minor nits above, a very good article, CW... :D

    Michale.....

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Chris,

    Did a quick Google news search on the term"Obama's War". It really is quite interesting to see this phrase in so many articles.

    Sometimes I wonder, do they all "borrow" their copy from the same source? :)

    Guess it's just provocative and that's what sells. Progressives are outraged and read. Conservatives feel justified that someone else is carrying on the war effort and read.

    One of the interesting things about this is that I don't think the term will hurt Obama politically. I think it might actually help him by making him seem more centrist.

    Maybe because it has a nice ring to it. Obama's War. Like Sophie's Choice. Or Jacob's Ladder. Or Tiger Wood's wife (Be honest readers- you don't know her name w/o looking it up).

    NOTE: This is not a war endorsement. Only an etymological comment.

    -David

  5. [5] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    I agree. Obama's War does have a nice ring to it, reminds me Foyle's War. Great British mystery series on PBS.

    Better ring to it than Bush's war which sounds like something out of the Boer wars...

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    For the record, it is the Left that is pushing the phrase, "Obama's War"... :D

    Michale.....

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    RE: Tiger's wife.

    I was expecting, the night the story broke (when there was already speculation as to a "domestic disturbance" and "lacerations on Tiger's face"), to read a headline the next day screaming: "Tiger Clawed!" but alas, haven't seen it yet.

    Heh heh. More on Tiger in a moment, when FTP posts...

    -CW

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