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August 25, 2010

Outgoing Marine Corps Commandant Talks About July 2011 Withdrawal Off Ramp Process Point Thing

I meant to get to this yesterday but real work invaded and I didn't have a chance to get to it. There was a lot of talk about General Conway saying that Obama's July '11 withdrawal date was giving "sustenance" to the enemy in Afghanistan. His remarks were actually quite a bit more nuanced than that.

In terms of the July ‘11 issue, you know, I think if you follow it closely, and of course we all do, we know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011.

In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself -- in fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.

But let me give you a different thought. Okay, if you accept what I offered earlier as true, that Marines will be there after 2011, okay, after the middle of 2011, what’s the enemy going to say then, you know?

What is he going to say to his foot troops, where you’ve got the leadership outside the country trying to direct operations within -- because it’s too dangerous for them to be there -- and the foot troops have been believing what he’s saying, that they’re all going to leave in the summer of next year, and come the fall, we’re still there hammering them like we have been? I think it could be very good for us in that context, in terms of the enemy’s psyche and what he has been, you know, posturing now for, really, the better part of a year.

I think this is a case of making lemonade out of lemons. Strategic ambiguity can be a good thing and a powerful tool. Not so much in COIN fight though where you are trying to develop not only security on the ground but a faith in the local government. Everyone knows that if the US leaves, the Afghan government disappears about an hour and a half later.

Now there may well be a psychological advantage to demoralizing the enemy if they think the end is in sight only to have the goal posts moved on them but if that's the case, it's going to be by accident rather than design.

Obama's talk to 'multiple audiences' is mainly an effort to manage domestic politics and not anything approaching sound political/military tactics.

Still, if it turns out that the ambiguity does help the effort, even in some backwards way, we'll take it. This is war after all and not figure skating...there are no style points.

In looking over the transcript of General Conway's remarks, I found something else I think is interesting and that we don't hear much about...we may be winning.

Q: So you think it could take until after July of next year for any sort of awakening or reconciliation process to really get going?

GEN. CONWAY: You know, I’ll tell you, we visited with Admiral Harward, Bob Harward, who runs detention in Afghanistan for ISAF. And it was really interesting to talk with him about the forensics of what he is discovering as he goes about his interrogation and questioning prisoners and so forth. Our enemy is getting tired, too. They’re getting hammered, to a much greater degree than we are. And they’re asking themselves, "Hey, is this all worth it?" And they’re asking themselves that now.

So, you know, I think the combined effects of that over the next year or so until next summer, when they realize that we may begin the process in July of 2011, but it’s certainly not going to all be done in a month, or two months, or three months -- that I think it’s only going to compound his thought process that maybe this isn’t going to end well.

How much of that is happy talk from the military and how widespread is the feeling within the ranks of the insurgents? Who knows but it's important to remember we are fighting men in Afghanistan, not machines. Everyone has a breaking point. Are we reaching theirs? There's no reason to think so but if there's ever going to be a political settlement in Afghanistan it's going to have to be matched with a military squeeze. We don't hear much about the insurgents getting fed up but maybe some are.

It comes back to this fuzzy July 2011 date. Is it just a mark on the calendar and not much will change or will it lead to a firmer commitment ahead of the '12 presidential campaign to start winding things down for real? If it's the latter, instead of being demoralized, the insurgents might realize that the end is honestly in sight this time.

Of course, everything in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan and they aren't likely to get tired of this anytime soon since they tend to view everything as part of their on going existential fight with India. People never get tired of those fights.

That's the beauty of Afghanistan, just when you think there is a glimmer of hope you can always find something to cure you of that.

Added: Contra Conway...Afghan Defense spokesman says time line is a great comfort to Taliban.

"This is giving more reason and propaganda for the anti-government elements to prolong the fight," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimy said of President Barack Obama's timetable on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

"Such assertions could be used in favor of insurgents for ... empowering their forces and giving reasons to fight," he said. "The withdrawal should be based on the capability of the Afghan security forces."

I'm not a military historian but I don't recall too many successful strategies that involve bucking up your enemy while scaring your allies.

Thanks to "Bomber" in the comments for the heads up.


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posted by DrewM. at 02:17 PM

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