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December 02, 2009

Obama And Afghanistan

I know a lot has already been written about last night’s speech and will be in the coming days but the more I think about it, the more dispiriting it strikes me as being.

Milblogger “CDR Salamander” has a great post on his reaction to the speech that’s well worth your time. A question he posed really struck me.

Here is a question I have for our 4-Stars:

Where in the history of warfare has a time-based strategy worked? When has it ever been determined to be a superior plan for success/victory/mission than a conditions based or effects based plan? Conventional warfare or COIN, when?

That is the heart of what’s wrong with Obama’s “Build up now, pull out in July, 2011” approach. It’s disconnected from reality.

We’ve been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, what exactly is going to be accomplished in the next 20 months or so that will be so miraculously different? And let’s be honest, it’s not even 20 months. What’s the best case for the troops getting there, ready to go and conducting operations? Let’s say it’s May of 2010. That means the timeline is really 14 months. But wait, Obama has another of his “strategic reviews”/Grad Seminars set for December of next year to evaluate how things are going. That means at best the troops have 7-9 months to show improvement. And then what? Is keeping the troop levels the same or even higher an option in the December review? I doubt it.

Suppose things are going well, Obama will say, “We did it, come on home”. If they are going poorly he will say, “We tried, come one home”. Even if somehow McChrystal and the troops can pull off a miracle and get things on a better footing, is anyone really expecting it to last if we draw down? What reason is there to believe that in the next year of so an Afghan Army is going to appear that can hold the gins American troops will undoubtedly make?

Look at the words of the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (pdf/pg 24)…

Counterinsurgency is a long-term approach and effort requiring support from political and military leaders”

In what way does Obama’s artificial timetable meet that basic stricture of counterinsurgency?


Now, we saw great strides made in Iraq thanks to ‘the surge’ but in large measure those improvements materialized because the change in tactics and increased troop levels were seen by Iraqis and foreign fighters as a serious commitment of US support. It showed we were in it for the long haul and the insurgents couldn’t just wait us out.

Obama’s time based framework does just the opposite. It tells the Taliban and al Qaeda to just hunker down and survive the coming onslaught (and the military will deliver a hell of a fight to them). It says to Afghans who want to work with us, “hey we are here to do what needs to be done to protect you but only for 20 months (though as we see it’s actually even less than that).

If you are an Afghan farmer, tribal leader or villager, are you inspired to throw your lot in with the Americas when they are telling you they all their promises of protection come with an expiration date? Anyone who did would be fool or a hopeless optimist. I don’t think there are too many of the latter in Afghanistan.

So why is Obama doing this? To save face. I don’t think there’s any real doubt that if he could pull out today without paying to steep a price politically he would. Instead he is trying to have it both ways…be tough but not too tough. Committed by not endlessly so.

Obama’s speech last night laid out a strategy, but it was a political not a military one. He had to walk the line between the Olbermanns and Sullivan’s of the world on one hand and the independent voters who are tired of the war but don’t want to give up on the other. This ‘strategy’ has something for everyone. Everyone that is but people who are serious about fighting the war.

(Added thought)A small part of me honestly wishes he had followed his heart and pulled the plug. Sometimes doing the wrong thing at 100% level of commitment is better than doing the right thing with a faint heart. Obama's plan only pushes off the day of reckoning a year or two while adding to the human cost of the war. Putting off bad results (and this plan guarantees them) usually only makes them worse in the end. (End of addition)

Personally, I’m not sold that a larger, more open ended commitment would work or be preferable. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe Afghanistan is ever going to be a stable nation state as we understand the term. To try and make it one seems a waste of blood and treasure to me. I’d prefer a tribal based approach that simply recognizes the reality of Afghan culture and tries to leverage it to our advantage as best as possible. My idea of what ‘victory’ looks like there is simply denying al Qaeda the chance to reconstitute its training infrastructure and safe haven. Beyond that, I don’t care how the Afghanis set up there country.

I know some say the only way to deny al Qaeda that safe haven is to secure the whole country and set up a stable and functional central government. If that’s true, we are screwed.

We’ve tried that for 8 years, I’d rather try another way, a whole new paradigm, than half heatedly try more of what we’ve been doing.

As for Pakistan, I think we overestimate our ability to influence events there. They will beat or surrender to the Islamist based on their interest, desires and willingness to fight. We can’t do much but hope to buy enough of the political and military leaders off to keep them in the fight and marginally ‘on our side’.

It’s funny how the Pakistan Army can fight back insurgents when push comes to shove but never quite enough to finish the job. That’s because the Pakistanis have their own agenda and interests and they don’t always coincide with ours. No strategy in Afghanistan is going to change that calculus.

So, what is someone who opposes Obama and his plan to do? I don’t want to be like the left and hope for failure in a war simply to advance a domestic political agenda. I will support the troops, their mission and yes on this issue, their Commander in Chief because despite what we heard for so long, the three are inseparable.

The President of the United States has made his decision and now American men and women are going to go off to fight that war the best they can. Many will return injured, too many will not come home alive. So I will hope to hell President Obama is right and the military can pull this off. If he is, I will happily admit he was right and give him all the credit in the world.


Added: I should take a second to talk about Gen. McChrystal and other military leaders. They are all publicly on board with this plan and I have no doubt they have a good faith belief it has a reasonable chance of working. And that is pretty much the only thing that gives me any hope.

They have to believe that or they would be honor-bound to resign.

That said, this kind of unwavering commitment to success is a hallmark of the US military and it is to their great credit. Still though, it is up to political leadership to not put the military into these kind of binds. McChrystal asked for a larger force and no time limits. He wasn't given that. By definition that compromises his best efforts to succeed.

So while I have great respect for our military leadership, this isn't their plan. They will accept it, support it publicly and execute it to the best of their ability but this isn't what the man Obama selected to lead the fight wanted. This is all on Obama.

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posted by DrewM. at 12:54 PM

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