It is relatively easy to criticize what's going wrong in Afghanistan. It is much harder to propose a realistic way forward. Seth Jones and Keith Crane have done just that. Some critics are content to recommend "get out" or "give up," but Jones and Crane in a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations, "Afghanistan After the Drawdown," suggest a calibrated political and military approach that protects U.S. interests at a realistic level of manpower and investment.
I served on the advisory committee for the report, which means I gave input that the authors were free to accept or ignore. The committee included folks with an impressive level of knowledge and experience on the subject, including Tim Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Ronald Neumann, former Ambassador to Afghanistan; and folks across the ideological spectrum, including Steve Biddle, whose knowledgeable views I appreciatively critiqued in a previous post; and Micah Zenko, with whom I shared a debate about the dangers America faces in the pages of Foreign Affairs a year ago.
Jones and Crane rightly note that "Even after most U.S. forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014, the United States will continue to have important national interests in Afghanistan and South Asia," an important point often overlooked by advocates of withdrawal. Among U.S. interests in South Asia are the continued presence of al-Qaida and other like-minded jihadist groups; regional stability and, especially, stability in Pakistan; and the effect of the war on U.S. credibility. (I am less persuaded that the last is a legitimate concern. One can invoke credibility for virtually any foreign policy position anywhere in the world, which means credibility can never help you prioritize among competing interests or tell you when not to get involved.)
If the U.S. still has interests in South Asia affected by the war in Afghanistan, then some level of continuing involvement in the region makes sense. Jones and Crane endorse the current policy of training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to enable the government to defend itself and pursuing negotiations with the Taliban. But Jones and Crane go further, advocating a role for the U.S. in brokering a national unity government in Afghanistan through next spring's presidential elections -- a political role the U.S. has shied away from since 2009. They also recommend sustaining up to nearly $4 billion per year in economic development assistance to Afghanistan for years to come.
The political and economic recommendations are what set this report apart. I have long argued that governance and development are the weak legs of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The U.S. has, justifiably, thrown an enormous amount of money and effort at building an entire army and police force from scratch. We finally began seeing the fruits of that massive effort over the last few years, especially since June when the Afghans assumed lead responsibility for security. But the U.S. has never come close, under either President Bush or Obama, to putting out the same level of effort rebuilding the Afghan state or the Afghan economy.
The net result is that the U.S. has built a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan state. That is not a recipe for lasting stability, and anyone with a passing familiarity with political science or the history of post-colonial states knows what that mixture yields. Jones and Crane are right to complement their security recommendations with strong political and economic components.
The report isn't perfect. Jones and Crane recommend between 8,000 - 12,000 U.S. troops "plus additional NATO forces," which is probably too small and conveniently consistent with the numbers reportedly under consideration by the administration. If U.S. forces are going to train the ANSF, continue counterterrorism operations, and sustain support for rural, Afghan-led counterinsurgency operations, even 15,000 is a low number. Considering the stakes, there is every reason to err on the high side to ensure the U.S. and Afghanistan can consolidate recent gains before drawing down to a lower troop presence.
That aside, it is refreshing to see a report that does not rely on knee-jerk criticism and does the hard work of proposing solutions that are realistic and achievable. The administration could do worse than to copy and paste CFR's report into a new presidential directive and call it policy.
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Steven Biddle is one of the more knowledgeable commentators on Afghanistan, having written one of the first, and still most insightful, analyses of the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. He isn't prone to invoking the historically inaccurate and intellectually lazy notion that Afghanistan is a place where mighty militaries invariably fail, an idea that has informed far too much deterministic "analysis" over the last dozen years. He once rightly noted, "Many Americans see Afghanistan as hopeless and ungovernable -- a chronically violent 'graveyard of empires.' It is not. For most of the twentieth century, Afghanistan was internally stable and at peace with its neighbors."
So his recent essay in Foreign Affairs on "Ending the War in Afghanistan" is notable for its relative pessimism. He argues that there are really only two options: cut a deal with the Taliban, or acknowledge that the war is lost and withdraw completely, with no residual force and no continued donor support. Neither option is good, but both are better than the worst-case scenario. "Losing per se is not the worst-case scenario; losing expensively is." In his view, the United States and the Afghan government have no prospect of victory. Thus, without a negotiated settlement, we can only choose to acknowledge defeat swiftly and efficiently, or endure defeat slowly and expensively. He argues we are currently on track for the "lose expensively" option.
President Barack Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war. He could not have conveyed any more clearly that irrespective of consequences, the U.S. military was leaving Iraq. His administration put in place an arbitrary "end of combat operations" in August 2009 and announced that all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by December 2011. Negotiations with the Iraqi government over the residual U.S. military presence were explicit that the mission of those forces was only advising and training the Iraqi military. And when the Iraqi government balked at granting blanket immunity to U.S. forces, the Obama administration took no for an answer and withdrew.
The retreat was camouflaged by "the largest U.S. diplomatic operation since the Marshall Plan," a triumph of soft power that was so dangerously beyond the State Department's capabilities and so poorly attuned to Iraqi needs that despite 17,000 people, it was ineffectual. It was quickly reduced to 5,000 (including contractors), and even that will be cut by two-thirds this year. U.S. soft power has had no demonstrable effect on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's choices to use the means of state power to move against political rivals and non-Shiites, allow Iran to ferry weapons through Iraq, support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and deny the United States political cooperation on virtually every issue in the Middle East. The day Maliki returned from meeting with Obama, he issued an arrest order for his (Sunni) deputy; his (Sunni) finance minister was also raided by security forces. Sectarian violence has escalated horrifically, now killing a thousand Iraqis a month. We enabled a descent into authoritarianism.
Obama's "responsible withdrawal" squandered U.S. success in Iraq, and the administration now looks to be replicating that failure in Afghanistan. The president began his Afghanistan "surge" by announcing its end date, a timeline unencumbered by achieving its objectives. Predictably, the political result negated the military effort, with all affected parties gaming the U.S. exit. The White House established a 2014 end date to combat operations and accelerated withdrawal plans corresponding with no discernible (foreign) political or military objective -- it does, however, align with the president's (domestic) political objective of "the tide of war receding."
The corresponding "civilian surge" that would place diplomatic engagement and development assistance at the forefront of the U.S. effort never materialized; the inspector general reports so little accountability for aid that we're actually funding the enemy. The administration has declined to outline its plans for the U.S. mission on Afghanistan after 2014 despite pleas from military leaders and even the administration's civilian supporters like Michèle Flournoy that it is essential to keeping Afghanistan cooperative in our war efforts.
Afghanistan has repeatedly conveyed its support for a continued U.S. military presence after 2014. In the past two months, the Obama White House has started making petulant statements about losing patience with negotiations on the agreement that would apply to U.S. forces after 2014. The White House has now regaled the Washington Post with the -- presumably classified -- details of a video conference in which "President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014."
The sticking point in the agreement under negotiation is not immunity for U.S. military forces (as it was in Iraq). What Karzai reportedly wants is intelligence sharing and a commitment to defend Afghanistan against external invasion. Presumably intelligence sharing is workable, since if the United States is supporting Afghan military operations that will need to occur -- which leaves the defense question. The Obama White House considers this beyond the pale as it would require Senate ratification. It is a big ask, to be sure, but not an unreasonable one from a country that has been subject to much Pakistani malfeasance. And one that ought to be subject to creative solutions -- the United States is committed to the protection of many countries with which it does not have explicit defense treaties. Karzai is being unduly demanding because we have been unreliable in our dealings with him. He's not wrong to doubt us.
The fundamental error in the Obama Administration's policies toward weak states is that the policies expect the threat of abandonment to produce brave political choices consistent with U.S. interests. Either Obama genuinely doesn't care what happens in Afghanistan after 2014, or he believes that publicly conveying threats to Karzai will produce a positive outcome. It won't.
Iraq's intransigence, rapid descent into violence, and choices that impede American policies show that it won't. Societies emerging out of political violence have very low levels of social trust, weak institutions of governance, and simmering political feuds with deep roots that only sustained, predictable, active involvement can contain and eventually overcome. They expect us to abandon them because that is their experience. Our challenge is conveying a reliable, long-term commitment.
Iraq had many more advantages presaging success than does Afghanistan; correspondingly, we should expect Afghanistan to fragment more quickly, become prey to outside actors -- states and terrorist organizations -- and have fewer means to sustain what positive trends exist. Obama is so clearly conveying his indifference in Afghanistan that Karzai and others would be crazy not to position themselves to benefit from the U.S. withdrawal rather than make the difficult political choices that would enable a continued U.S. presence. That's what Maliki did in Iraq.
Our involvement in Iraq actually went a long way in a short time to foster positive political developments in that country; we have not had corresponding effect in Afghanistan. That should argue for more patience, not less. Because if Iraq could become this devastated in the space of two years after American withdrawal, Afghanistan will fracture even more quickly. Thinking they are a danger only to themselves, content to fight the "near enemy" within Iraq and Afghanistan rather than continue threatening us, is terrifyingly shortsighted, given the way al Qaeda has metastasized. Obama should be doing an awful lot more to ensure that doesn't happen on his watch. He should start by retracting his ultimatum; unless he does, Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq.
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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Reading this piece analyzing Karzai's apparently self-defeating -- indubitably, American-mission-threatening -- behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him.
The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which claimed to support the goal of stopping the drug trade but just opposed the idea of aerial spraying.
My theory at the time was that Karzai actually opposed eradication and would have complained regardless of the method. At the time, this reminded me of a scene from a favorite childhood book of mine, Cheaper by the Dozen. In the book, as I remember it, the mother was objecting to the locus of the spanking applied by the father: "Not the seat of pants, dear. Not there." But when he shifted to apply the spanking elsewhere, he got the same objection: "Not the top of the head, dear. Not there." Exasperated, the father bellowed, "Where can I spank him?" The reply was classic, "I don't know where, but not there, dear. Not there."
Karzai claimed that was not the case, and when we pressed him for an explanation, he gave one that none of us had anticipated. He said we should do truck-based spraying, not aerial spraying, because that way the Afghan farmers would be able to shoot at the trucks in defense of their fields. As I recall, the conversation went something like this....
"Wouldn't that block the spraying?"
"Not really. You could shoot back and the trucks would finish the job."
"But why not just do the aerial spraying and be done with it? It is safer and more efficient."
"Because the Afghan people will resent it so much more if they can't shoot back. They won't like losing the crops either way, but they will learn to live with it if they had a chance to shoot back while you were doing it. If you just do it from the air, they will feel powerless and the resentment will grow."
It was not at all how we thought about the problem and perhaps it was not the real reason anyway. Perhaps Karzai calculated that the risks of ground-spraying would be enough for us to be deterred from proceeding.
But his explanation has always stuck with me, and it has a certain perverse logic to it. It certainly seems to me like Karzai is "taking pot-shots at the trucks," as it were. Maybe there is an Afghan logic to it.
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The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:
Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.
Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.
"Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front?
Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington. It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.
Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.
A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.
President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.
This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .
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For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).
This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.
The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.
Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.
Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.
It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)
But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.
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It is striking how closely the Obama administration is following the Iraq withdrawal playbook in Afghanistan. There are numerous and important differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Obama is making the exact same policy choices to "wind down" the war in Afghanistan that he made in Iraq. And in both cases, it amounts to writing off the war.
The Obama administration hasn't had a strategy in either war, it has had a military strategy. In both cases, that military strategy produced military gains; in both cases those military gains were ephemeral because advances were in no way supported by political or economic lines of operations to consolidate and capitalize on our military success. The State Department's grand plans for the transition to civilian activity in Iraq are in ashes. If there was a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, it was completely ineffectual.
In both cases President Obama had a political strategy grounded in the belief that leaders in those countries would not make the politically difficult choices needed unless faced with the imminent end of our support. Thus the timeline-driven exit in both cases. In Iraq, it resulted in a mad scramble for political control: the stalemate over Parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Maliki using the apparatus of the state to punish political adversaries. That mad scramble has been underway in Afghanistan and the region since President Obama announced in December 2009 our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and most evident in the hedging choices of the government of Pakistan, without whose collaboration our strategy could not succeed.
In both cases President Obama doubted the efficacy of a surge of troops: on Iraq he insisted the surge couldn't work, on Afghanistan he set a time limit and reportedly told military commanders this was all they were getting. If they couldn't produce a victory in that time, he would wind down our involvement.
In both cases, President Obama publicly declaring our withdrawal created a political dynamic in which leaders had strong incentives to make us look pushed out; otherwise they would look abandoned, weakening them domestically. Thus Maliki's resistance to immunity for American soldiers; thus Karzai's cavalcade of anti-American statements and actions. Their resistance feeds into the president's belief that they are undeserving of our sacrifices, and best left to their own fates instead of coached and set up to be successful. President Karzai said after meeting President Obama that "numbers [of American troops] aren't going to make a difference in Afghanistan." Expect President Obama to give that theory a test.
In both cases, our exit bore no connection to achievement of our objectives. In Iraq the timeline was supposed to allow for a stable political transition. Manipulation by Maliki of the outcome of spring 2010 Parliamentary elections seized up politics in Iraq for a year and a half while our drawdown proceeded apace and Generals Odierno and Austin disavowed any connection between our withdrawal and political fracture. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has trumpeted building security forces that can undertake the crucial work Americans have been doing. The December 2012 Pentagon report on Afghan security forces concluded that only 1 of 23 Afghan brigades can operate without our support. If achieving our objectives mattered to President Obama, that information should prompt a serious review of our timeline -- and extend it. Instead, he has accelerated our disengagement.
In both cases, the military advised more troops, more time, and broader objectives than the president accepted. It is the job of military leaders to provide the president their best military advice -- but warfare is a political undertaking, and the military cannot be expected to decide how much national effort to put toward the wars we are fighting. It is above their pay grade. We elect presidents to do that, and only they truly have the span of authority to make the trade offs between defending our country and other important endeavors. But that means blame for the outcome also belongs with the president and not the military leaders.
In both cases, President Obama instituted an end to military operations more than a year before the withdrawal of our military forces. In Iraq it was the August 2009 "end of combat operations;" on Friday, President Obama announced U.S. forces in Afghanistan would this spring limit themselves to supporting Afghan operations; by 2014 they will be limited to training Afghan forces. This effectively ends the practice of counterinsurgency. We will no longer protect Afghans, be dispersed throughout the country, or operate alongside Afghan military units. We're shrinking back onto a couple of large military bases that will protect us against attack ... and also against having an accurate intelligence picture to fuel those counterterrorist operations.
In both cases, President Obama has carried out the policies in slow motion, allowing months of news coverage about pending changes and options considered, such that when policies are implemented, they don't seem like news. Opponents have a harder time mobilizing support when there isn't an actual policy to counter, and by the time there is a policy, the public feels like they've heard this all before. It's the frog boiling strategy: make it happen slowly enough that we'll hardly notice.
Executing the Iraq playbook in Afghanistan will replicate the squandered Iraq gains in the war President Obama argued needed to be fought because he was "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" as it was not in Iraq. Does President Obama genuinely expect a different outcome? Does he no longer believe the dire stakes that prompted his Afghanistan surge are at issue? Does he believe achieving our objectives is not worth the price? Does he believe America can buffer itself against a chaotic and dangerous world? Does he believe the wars he has prosecuted as commander in chief are unwinnable? If so, why has he allowed them to exact the terrible toll of lives lost?
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I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.
I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.
Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.
The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.
A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.
Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.
But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.
Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.
The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.
Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.
The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.
Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.
Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight: are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.
Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."
The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.
I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.
No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.
In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.
Note: this blog entry was originally posted at Patheos.com.
Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
By Javid Ahmad and Daniel Twining
Since the 1970s, Pakistan has approached Afghanistan through a doctrine of strategic depth. The latest incarnation of its longstanding Afghan policy, directed from military headquarters in Rawalpindi, has been to prop up the Afghan Taliban as a means of extorting concessions from Kabul or even toppling the pro-Western Afghan government altogether.
However, recent good-faith gestures by Pakistan -- freeing influential former Taliban officials and reaching out to the non-Pashtun leaders from the erstwhile Northern Alliance -- have been widely interpreted to signal a perceived shift in its Afghanistan policy. The change in Pakistan is emanating from Rawalpindi, which the civilian government in Islamabad gingerly follows. For years, Pakistan has hesitated or refused to release Afghan Taliban leaders to participate in talks on a political settlement to the Afghan conflict. Surprisingly, it is now pushing for reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government via a peace roadmap by 2015.
These breakthroughs raise the inevitable question: Is this a real strategic shift, or merely a tactical response to current circumstances? While Pakistan has many real reasons to alter its longstanding Afghan policy and truly abandon strategic depth, several factors may explain Rawalpindi's new approach to its neighbor.
First, radical Islamic ideals that appeal to unemployed youth are now also affecting lower-level members of Pakistan's military. Although this blowback effect has not yet been turned into tangible threats within the military, Pakistan continues to address the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. Mindful of this reality, Pakistan's fretful military realizes that if this trend continues, it will most likely create subversive insiders in the force that will threaten its stability from within.
Second, Pakistan has been made a part of the regional peace framework via the Istanbul Process. Despite its intransigence over engaging in genuine regional cooperation, recent nudges from regional governments through the Istanbul Process have pressured Pakistan to become a more active and constructive partner in the effort. Pakistani hesitation to work collaboratively with its neighbors is driven largely by concerns about the deeper role India could play in any regional framework, augmenting its rising influence across Afghanistan.
However, growing distrust between Rawalpindi and the Afghan Taliban and heightening home-grown insurgency now supersede anxieties about India. The soaring number of Taliban attacks on Pakistan's security forces and military installations, coupled with the alarming number of casualties the army and civilians endure every month, not only has troubled Pakistan but also signifies that its nexus with the Taliban may not be entirely fruitful. Most vitally, Rawalpindi is uneasy about the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and the northern frontier becoming a safe haven for various Taliban groups joining forces against Pakistan.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that any shift in Pakistan's policy is short-term and tactical.
First, several of Pakistan's political parties are now supporting radicalization and flirting with jihadi mindsets. Most recently, Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, claimed that the Taliban are fighting a "jihad" in Afghanistan that is justified by Islamic law. Such public statements in support of criminal activities are not only misguided, but also inspire violent extremist ideologies that mislead uneducated and impressionable Pakistani youth and provide a space for insurgents to recruit. Unless this attitude changes, the viability of any positive policy shift is questionable at best.
Second, the media in Pakistan, rather than being a force broadly supportive of peace and stability in Afghanistan, often does the opposite. A broad cross-section of Pakistani media links the impending troop withdrawal directly with the United States' failure in Afghanistan. Elements in the mainstream media are also raising paranoia and anti-Americanism among the people, while openly advocating the insurgency next door.
Third, even if Rawalpindi's change of posture is sincere, the shadow of history in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations hampers this policy shift. The underlying thinking in Rawalpindi may well be that it can still achieve its traditional goals through different means. Most Afghans remain highly skeptical of Pakistan's goals in their country, recognizing that Rawalpindi is unlikely to abandon its long-held objectives in Afghanistan, particularly at a time when Western forces are drawing down.
Perhaps most importantly, there most likely will be no positive shift in Pakistan's strategy unless and until it genuinely supports political inclusivity in Afghanistan. Despite its recent overtures to some of the non-Pashtun political leaders, Pakistan still seeks a pliant government in Kabul through its privileged relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan has to do more to overcome the considerable mistrust it carries among non-Pashtun groups in order to facilitate any policy shift.
While there may be a realization in Rawalpindi that its current Afghan strategy has not succeeded, there are few tangible signs of an actual policy shift. While it remains to be seen how ongoing events will unfold in coming months, perhaps one of the most visible shortcomings of the peace roadmap is the absence of contingency plans should reconciliation not proceed as envisaged.
Kabul must carefully review the terms of the negotiations, resist the temptation of trailing into and accepting conditions that privilege Pakistani interests at the expense of Afghan sovereignty, and avoid reaching a hasty, high-risk peace deal that could potentially compromise the security of the Afghan people. Pakistan's recent gestures are a good sign, but given its history in Afghanistan, regrettably these signals do not appear entirely reassuring.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views reflected here are his own.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan's recent call for the mujahedeen to rearm and reunite to defend Afghanistan against a post-2014 Taliban takeover is a reminder that the ongoing U.S. drawdown is changing the calculus not only of our adversaries but of our friends. Indeed, much of the behavior that undermines Afghan state-building (and therefore makes it harder for us to leave) -- the kleptocratic government, pervasive corruption, political infighting, and growing strains between President Karzai and Western capitals -- stems from the local belief that, with NATO forces soon to depart, our Afghan allies must seize every advantage they can. For Khan and other regional strongmen, this means arming and mobilizing their personal militias while the writ of Washington and Kabul still holds at least some sway in the provinces -- in preparation for a period when it may not.
Fans of the Game of Thrones novels have a useful guide to how regional strongmen able to raise their own armies rise to fill vacuums of power left by weak or illegitimate central authority. In the case of Afghanistan, a legitimate central government has lost much of its authority by virtue of its predatory relationship to its citizens and the sense that the private interests of top leaders trump the larger public interest. Sounds like a good reason for the U.S. to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans," right? Not quite. The sad truth is that the U.S. decision to "end the war" and walk away is more likely than any other external policy to reignite it.
We have seen the evidence for this in the surge of Taliban violence against Afghan institutions since President Obama made explicit the timeline for most U.S. forces to depart. We have also seen regional powers move in to fill what they perceive as an impending vacuum of power following the U.S. retreat. India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan; Pakistan has refused even to pretend to help Washington reach a political settlement with the Taliban, instead doubling down on its own Afghan assets. And now we are seeing the Afghan warlords -- including men like Marshal Fahim, who since late 2001 have viewed service in the president's cabinet and the Afghan National Army as their preferred vehicle for influence and power -- position themselves outside those institutions to reprise their former roles as leaders of ethnic armies.
President Obama's reelection gives him a mandate to reduce the American military footprint in Afghanistan. He has neither a mandate nor an interest, however, in seeing Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil. The military and political Balkanization of Afghanistan would endanger core U.S. interests -- in securing the legacy of over a decade of war and development, preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory to plot against America, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would demonstrate to U.S. friends and enemies alike that America does not stand by its allies.
Afghanistan's disintegration after 2014 -- both through a fully fledged Taliban assault on the state and the decision of more strongmen like Ismail Khan to fight back using private rather than public means -- would negate a national security record under President Obama that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might wish to run on in 2016. It could further radicalize Arab extremists now vying to determine the future of their newly liberated societies, undercutting moderate forces in the Middle East and North Africa who seek long-term partnership with the West to promote democracy and development.
Nor would the Obama administration's ability to keep American enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region off-balance through drone strikes remain viable should Afghanistan come apart in ways that precluded reliable U.S. basing rights there. For these many reasons, now that his reelection is secured and his governing horizon extends beyond 2014, President Obama may want to come up with a more sustainable policy on Afghanistan than the one on which he campaigned.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.
This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.
President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.
Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.
What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.
On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.
Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.
The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.
Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.
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South Asia contains one of America's most important long-term partners in sustaining a global order safe for the interests and values of free societies -- India -- as well as a fragile, nuclear-armed state in Pakistan whose weakening and radicalization could be more consequential for American security interests than nearly any other single contingency. The region also contains a country, Afghanistan, that may not be the center of Asia but is a center of strategic competition among key Asian powers and has cost the West a decade of war to defeat extremism and build lasting stability. Over the coming four years, U.S. leadership to shape this region will be essential, for both positive and negative reasons.
Positively, the consolidation of a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India could change the history of the 21st century by allying the United States with the world's largest democracy and budding economic powerhouse. Negatively, U.S. leadership is essential to prevent Pakistan's many pathologies -- state complicity in terrorism, weak institutions, a foreign policy that exports insecurity -- from spilling over in ways that undermine fundamental U.S. interests in the future of Afghanistan, non-proliferation, defeating terrorism, and dampening extremism.
India is still casting off its legacy of non-alignment and statist economic management. But its leaders have identified the United States as a vital partner for India for the long-term, just as American leaders pursued a revolutionary strategic partnership with India with an eye on shaping the longer-term balance of power and values in the international system. The United States and India share a convergence of interests across the spectrum. Both seek to balance Chinese power in Asia to encourage China's peaceful rise. Both want to defeat terrorism, moderate extremism, and promote democratic state-building in South Asia, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to ensure that responsible governments rule there with a focus on internal development rather than fomenting external insecurity. Both want to ensure freedom of the maritime commons in the Indian Ocean, across which most world trade in energy flows. Both want to strengthen an open and liberal international economy in ways that will fuel their knowledge, technology, and manufacturing sectors.
The next U.S. administration can reverse the drift in Indo-U.S. relations that has occurred since 2009, including by deepening the underdeveloped economic relationship between the two countries through a robust free trade agreement and supporting India's entry into APEC. Washington and New Delhi can also cooperate more intimately on Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, missile defense, maritime security in the Indian Ocean, East Asian security with partners like Japan, and in multilateral institutions like the U.N. The overall objective would be the construction of a preponderance of democratic power in Asia and the international system, with U.S.-India partnership at its core.
As the United States draws down forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan will lose the leverage it has held on U.S. policy by virtue of its control of the primary supply routes into Afghanistan. This creates the prospect for a more mature and balanced U.S.-Pakistan relationship in which U.S. policy concentrates not on buying off the Pakistani military but on strengthening the development of Pakistani civilian institutions. U.S. policy will need to focus more on strengthening Pakistan's economy and, in particular, its energy sector, as a way to offset the rise of radicalism associated with the country's chronic economic crises and to build goodwill among a population that is fervently anti-American. Liberalization of trade, including duty-free treatment of Pakistani textiles into the United States, will be as important (if not more important) than official assistance in this regard.
U.S. policy must not re-hyphenate India and Pakistan, but rather pursue independent policies towards both countries that do not allow one country to hold U.S. policy towards the other hostage. Prospects for Pakistan to benefit from India's economic growth and measured Indian steps to lift trade and visa restrictions on Pakistan could, in tandem with U.S. policy, help reconstruct Pakistan's moderate majority who opposes the militarization and radicalization of the state and its foreign policies.
In Afghanistan, the next administration will need to fill out the existing strategic partnership agreement with a commitment to keep substantial U.S. forces in-country - to train Afghan forces, contain Taliban attacks against state institutions, and ensure that neighboring powers with predatory designs do not fill a vacuum that would otherwise be left by U.S. retreat. Afghanistan's 2014 elections will be pivotal to the post-Western dispensation of the country, and U.S. engagement with allies will be key to ensuring that the gains the country has made over the past decade are sustainable. American support for Afghanistan will also be instrumental to helping it build a self-sustaining economy not dependent on foreign aid. Washington will want to coordinate much more closely with New Delhi than it has over the past decade given India's similar interests in sustaining a representative Afghan government that does not tolerate the export of violent extremism, and can serve as a gateway for South Asian trade and investment with Central Asia.
American policy, often working in parallel with India's, can play a critical role in the process of democratic state building and free-market economic growth in the other key South Asian states of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. All are underdeveloped, post-conflict societies in which the military plays a strong role. Bangladesh is especially promising as a partner for greater U.S. engagement -- it has one of the world's largest Muslim populations who are predominantly unradicalized, its economy has been growing very rapidly, it has worked with India and the United States to defeat home-grown terrorism, and its governance indicators have improved meaningfully over the past few years. Goldman Sachs has identified Bangladesh as one of its "N-11" economies or next-generation BRICS.* U.S. partnership will be critical to helping Bangladesh consolidate these gains and join India as part of a "South Asian miracle" of the kind East Asian economies have experienced.
American leadership will be essential to realize the promise of the troubled South Asian region. Wariness and even hostility among neighboring states remains high. This region (not the Arab Middle East) is the source of the world's most violent extremism. Western forces have fought for over a decade in Afghanistan to render it a regional source of stability rather than instability. Pakistan faces extraordinary development and governance challenges, and its support for terrorism could have explosive consequences, not just in Delhi and Kabul but in Washington and London. Rising India could recast the global balance of power and values by virtue of its success in realizing its extraordinary potential. U.S. partnership can help more of South Asia achieve its enormous economic potential, placing it alongside East Asia as a driver of global economic growth and American prosperity.
Editor's note: This piece originally stated HSBC was the group to identify Bangladesh, and it has been corrected to Goldman Sachs.
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President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.
It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.
Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?
The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn't build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.
That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn't President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?
My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter's quote, alas.
Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness -- that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.
Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike -- even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).
Part of the answer is also that Obama's Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.
Part of the answer may also be that because Obama's war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.
And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won't (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don't like.
For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.
I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.
I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.
And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.
The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself -- and it doesn't appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.
The Washington Post has run a few excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It contains such shockers as the revelation that inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon led to bureaucratically sub-rational outcomes. As Captain Renault said to Rick, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Rajiv gets a few things right. He claims that "U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." A lot of the senior brass seems never to have fully internalized the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, despite two presidents insisting that it was a vital American national security interest. When Bush and Obama can agree on something, you have to at least consider they may be right.
But much of the book dwells on interagency rivalry in Washington during the early months of the Obama administration, when I served as a staffer on the NSC. Here, Chandrasekaran embellishes, dramatizes, and exaggerates until the story is no longer recognizable.
In Chandrasekaran's telling, there was an epic rivalry between the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the NSC's special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute. I worked for Lute during some of the period covered by Chandrasekaran's story.
There was plainly a rivalry of sorts, but Chandrasekaran blows it out of all proportion and neglects obvious historical and institutional factors at play. The NSC and the State Department have been rivals since the NSC was created in 1947, and the rivalry endures across policy issues and regardless of personalities. Add to the standard institutional competition the fact that the Obama administration decided to have two separate 'special' leads for Af-Pak policy, one at State and one at NSC, and it is unsurprising that the two offices clashed over their confusing, overlapping and unclear roles. That's the natural consequence of the president's poor managerial decisions and the administration's neglect of clear institutional organization.
Instead of recognizing these obvious, if un-dramatic, facts, Chandrasekaran claims that the rivalry between Lute and Holbrooke cost the United States the opportunity to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in 2009-10. He claims that "The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield," in part because of the rivalry. The claim is false. No such peace deal was within reach. Chandrasekaran even concedes that "It was not clear that [the Taliban's] leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk" to the United States. Indeed, despite Lute and Holbrooke's differences, they agreed on the fundamental policy of pursuing talks to end the war and the Obama administration has, however falteringly, made some progress towards that goal.
But Chandrasekaran goes so far as to say that "[National Security Advisor James] Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans." The accusation that two professional military men would let a personality conflict obstruct the president's ability to wage and win a war is petty, unfounded and worthy of the National Enquirer, not the Washington Post.
In fact, Lute went out of his way to re-engineer the interagency process and make a great display of co-chairing a new higher-level interagency forum with Holbrooke, something neither Chandrasekaran nor Woodward picked up on in their respective books. Lute and Holbrooke kept their disagreements out of the public eye, as professionals are supposed to do.
Lute and Holbrooke clashed, but that's what bureaucrats do, especially when there are real issues at stake that they disagree about. Chandrasekaran relates that Lute believed that Holbrooke "had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government." That's essentially true; I don't know many who would dispute that account. Holbrooke's histrionics and his belief that the U.S. should have tilted the playing field in the 2009 Afghan presidential election were responsible for much of the damage to U.S.-Afghan relations in the early years of the Obama administration.
I have always admired what Lute was able to accomplish during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. He provided crucial continuity during the first war-time presidential transition since 1968. He cooperated with the incoming administration as a foreign policy professional, embodying the non-partisan ethos that the community used to stand for. And, when the Obama team inexplicably demoted his position, he accepted it with a rare humility not often found among bureaucrats. A lesser man would have resigned to nurse his wounded pride. I like to think that he stayed because he believed, rightly, that the job was too important to put his ego first.
That doesn't mean Lute's record is flawless. I have been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's record on Afghanistan, some of which inevitably must reflect on Lute as the administration's longest-serving point-man on Afghan policy. But that is an honest disagreement on policy, the sort of thing that should drive public debate. Chandrasekaran may sell books with his tabloid accusations, but history will set the record straight.
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Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
Few pieces could be more damaging to President Obama's claim to the mantle of a skilled war-time commander-in-chief than the New York Times' exposé on how his views on Afghanistan shifted from his hawkish campaign to his eager-to-withdraw presidency.
Obama reportedly did not consult with the military before announcing in July 2011 his plans to withdraw U.S. troops and end the combat mission in Afghanistan. "The generals were cut out entirely," according to the Times, confirming that the withdrawal is not dictated by military necessities.
Instead of taking military advice, Obama's policy was predicated on a false reading of history. "Mr. Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy." But Bush never had that dream. Bush invoked lofty rhetoric, but never seriously undertook the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A serious effort would have involved massively more money and personnel. Bush's administration was famous for doing nation-building on the cheap with a light-footprint. Nonetheless, Obama got sticker-shock by the price tag of the Afghan war and decided to lower the bar from the already-low starting point.
Funny thing: Afghanistan is the second-cheapest major war in U.S. history as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It seems odd to get sticker shock for a war that has accounted for about 1 percent of U.S. federal expenditures over the last decade. About 65 percent of federal expenditures over the last ten years have gone towards entitlements. By comparison, about 15 percent has gone towards national defense, excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has cost three percent, and only about one percent has gone towards the war in Afghanistan (including the cost of ongoing military operations and all reconstruction and stabilization assistance combined), according to my analysis of figures from OMB (see table, below).
But Obama let neither fiscal nor military realities drive his policy. Instead, he began to doubt the importance and feasibility of the war. In probably the most damning passage, the Times writes:
[Obama] also began to reassess whether emerging victorious in Afghanistan was as necessary as he had once proclaimed. Ultimately, Obama agreed to double the size of the American force while training the Afghan armed forces, but famously insisted that, whether America was winning or losing, the drawdown would begin in just 18 months.
The president escalated the war while simultaneously doubting whether it was very important or even winnable. He came to believe that "progress was possible -- but not on the kind of timeline that [he] thought economically or politically affordable." I suspect Obama was going to get sticker shock no matter what the price tag, simply because he didn't want to pay for a war he no longer believed in.
If Obama sincerely believed the war was either unimportant or already lost, he had a moral responsibility to the soldiers under his command to order their immediate withdrawal; or, contrarily, if he believed the war was still important and winnable (which it is), he had a responsibility to go "all in" and give the troops everything they needed for victory. He did neither, seeking to do just enough to get credit for trying while avoiding an even larger commitment that would have dominated his presidency. Analogizing Vietnam is almost never appropriate, but here it seems irresistible.
"Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban," according to the Times. The easiest way for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to differentiate himself from Obama on Afghanistan would be to reverse Obama's temporizing and make the Taliban's defeat the goal of U.S. policy in South Asia. Such a policy makes sense because, as the Times concludes, under Obama's policy, "Left unclear is how America will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country." Obama himself said in his speech in Kabul that stability in Afghanistan is a prerequisite to denying safe haven to al Qaeda. "Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more," he said. That's true: So why has he refused to take the steps necessary to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan? His failure to do so is his legacy.
President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
A recent Cable item from the intrepid Josh Rogin tells me that one of the consequences of the era of declining defense budgets may well be a further shifting of civilian roles back on to defense shoulders.
That is not a typo.
For years pundits have complained about the "militarization" of foreign policy, referring to the way that foreign policy tasks get assigned to the military even if the tasks do not involve military expertise per se (i.e. blowing things up). For decades, the military has been deployed to do everything from disaster relief to rural development to local banking reform to post-conflict venture capital, and so on. High defense spending has bought remarkable capacity in our uniformed ranks, and that capacity has been utilized in the service of a broad range of foreign policy goals.
Critics have complained that these tasks are not inherently military and they could be, perhaps should be, done by civilians in the State Department and elsewhere. Letting civilians do civilian tasks would, the critics maintain, "demilitarize" American foreign policy. Hence, a big push to boost capacity outside of DoD.
That push enjoyed substantial rhetorical support from Secretary Rumsfeld, who despaired of the military being the bill-payer for tasks better assigned to State and elsewhere. It enjoyed even more substantial material and political support from Secretary Gates, who joined first with Secretary Rice and then with Secretary Clinton to beg Congress to boost the budget of the State Department so as to build civilian capacity.
I suspect that effort may have reached a turning point, however. The very same fiscal pressures that are forcing deep cuts in the defense budget will be operating on the budgets of the State Department and other departments and agencies that might otherwise be expected to prop up the civilian side of the civil-military balance. And in such a hostile fiscal environment, it is likely that the military will lose less than civilian agencies will. Or rather: Even if the military loses more in absolute terms (because their budget baseline is so high), in relative terms they can weather those losses better without losing minimum functioning capacity.
In short, the civil-military balance is likely to tip even further in the direction of the military.
This was the gist of a talk I gave last month to the Army War College's Annual Strategy Conference. I made several points, which the latest congressional action on the foreign operations and defense budgets have only reinforced:
Therefore, while it is fine to remain rhetorically committed to Plan A (improving State capacity), the military should train and equip for Plan B (State and other civilian agencies are no more and probably less capable than they were in 2008).
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Obama got a few things right in his speech on Afghanistan. First, he actually gave a speech, a change from most of his presidency. Second, he reminded everyone of the war's purpose and (implicitly, at least) the reason why the United States is fighting the Taliban. He quite strongly defended the idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is necessary to denying safe haven to al Qaeda, an idea that some liberal critics have begun to question. He also suggested that the United States will continue its training and counterterrorism missions after 2014, which will require the continued presence of U.S. troops. His hesitancy to say so openly until this point has been a major source of confusion and misreporting about the U.S. withdrawal.
He got a few things wrong.
1. He said "Over the last three years, the tide has turned." The tide did not turn in May 2009. There was an inflection point in early 2007, when President Bush first ordered an increase in U.S. troops and quintupled assistance to the Afghan army and police, which was accelerated by Obama's surge that he announced in December 2009 and implemented in 2010, and followed by a military turning point in 2011, when violence actually decreased for the first time in the war. "Three years" is a political claim that the tide turned when Obama took office, a blatant mischaracterization and a politicization of the efforts of the troops who have served for a decade.
2. Obama also said that the defeat of al Qaeda "is now within our reach." This is also false, but this claim is more dangerous because of the complacency it will breed among the public. Better analysts than I, like Seth Jones and Mary Habeck, have persuasively highlighted al Qaeda's resilience.
3. Obama repeated the error of announcing a withdrawal timetable, the original sin of his Afghanistan policy from which we have not, and may not ever, recover.
4. He said, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image." There are several problems with this. First, Obama refutes an argument no one is advancing. Second, he is trying to reassure us that we are keeping our sights pitched at a realistically low level and that we are not undertaking an impossible mission, but the real danger has always been the opposite: that we haven't tried hard enough and we've continually crippled ourselves by thinking too small. The idea that reconstruction and stabilization in Afghanistan is a mythically impossible mission that goes against the laws of history and culture is one of the most enduring, pernicious, and groundless myths of the last decade.
5. He said that our goal is not to "eradicate every vestige of the Taliban." I sympathize slightly here, because I think the administration is right to undertake limited talks with the Taliban. But even if we undertake talks with the Taliban in private, it is still important to stigmatize them in public because of their ongoing insurgency, support to terrorism, and violation of human rights. So long as "Taliban" means theocracy backed by violence, we absolutely should eradicate them. The talks are designed to prompt defections for whom the label "Taliban" means something else.
6. Obama completely omitted any mention of the Afghan government, our civilian capacity development efforts, or the need to invest more time and more civilian personnel in reconstruction and development. I understand why: his "civilian surge" has completely failed to have any appreciable effect. Obama (rightly) sent hundreds more U.S. civilians to Afghanistan, but they largely stayed behind the wire and Obama actually cut aid for governance program by $1.5 billion -- a third of the total -- from 2011 to 2012. None of the indicators of governance have shown significant improvement since 2009. This is a major failing because, as Obama himself pointed out, stability is necessary for U.S. interests.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images
In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al Qaeda and terrorism experts (like Will McCants). Since then Seth Jones has published a piece that also argues al Qaeda is not dead, although he takes on different points of contention than I do.
At the center of the first three objections that I list -- and that lead directly to the fourth -- is a profound disagreement over what exactly al Qaeda is, how able "core" al Qaeda is to command and control its affiliates, and what the group can therefore hope to achieve (despite its boasts to far greater things). The objections also reflect a difference in opinion about the public statements made by al Qaeda's leaders, seen by many as expressing aspirational -- but unachievable -- goals, or as rhetoric designed to inspire terror attacks, but by me and others as official statements of the group's policy vision.
I've already discussed thoroughly the differing views of "what al Qaeda is" in this post, but would stress that I take al Qaeda's leadership at their word, and agree that the "core" is the high command of a global organization that includes many branches (as al Qaeda calls the affiliates) and that these branches are an integral part of al Qaeda. Their relationship is somewhat like that between the Pentagon and the Combatant Commanders, although more decentralized and with latitude for splintering and serious disagreement-as in any insurgency. The oath of obedience that binds leadership and forces in the field -- called "baya" -- is one piece of evidence that both "core" and branches are precisely the same thing and that there is a command and control function built into their relationship. In theory, baya operates in much the same way as a feudal oath of fealty. When joining al Qaeda, only the overall affiliate military commander -- and the head of shadow governance, if one exists -- swear loyalty to the al Qaeda high command, subordinate commanders swear loyalty to these leaders, and the ordinary foot soldiers swear loyalty to the subordinates. Just as with feudal oaths where the meanest peasant could not argue that he did not have to obey the ruler because he had not personally sworn an oath to him, so the local forces of al Qaeda -- through their oaths to their unit commander -- are bound to obey as well the orders of everyone above them in the chain of command. One recent example of this theoretical hierarchy in practice is the baya sworn by Shaykh Atom to the Amir of the Shabab in Somalia, an oath that made him -- and his men -- as much a part of al Qaeda as the Shabab.
But these oaths, while suggestive, do not prove that the "core" is really able to command and control the affiliates. Again, there is evidence that tells us they are, but in the same way that all insurgencies are under the command and control (C2) of often distant superiors. In regular militaries and regular wars, C2 is a rigidly defined issue, with strict rules about who obeys whom, daily reporting by subordinates to officers, constant oversight to make certain that orders are obeyed, and set penalties for insubordination or direct disobedience. Irregular wars -- such as insurgencies -- are very different, however, as a recent publication by the Department of Defense on the insurgency in Afghanistan makes clear. As in other insurgencies, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan provides broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command. Instead, tighter C2 is handled through the local shadow government and commanders on the ground, who report back to their distant superiors on a regular basis. This, in miniature, is how al Qaeda is controlling their forces in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. Captured documents from Iraq show in action both the strengths and limitations of this sort of guidance. Zarqawi was directly ordered by his superiors to stop cutting off heads in public, to refrain from ever attacking neighboring countries again, to create the foundations for an Islamic state in Iraq, and to try harder to win over Sunnis to his cause. All these orders he obeyed. He was also ordered to stop killing Shia and Sunnis in large numbers, but events seem to show that he ignored this demand. From their distant headquarters, al Qaeda could not do much about this insubordination, although his subsequent demotion to a lesser position within al Qaeda in Iraq is suggestive, and I'm sure they did not mourn his passing a few weeks later.
Another example of this sort of C2 should give pause to those who argue that the "core" does not really control the affiliates. In the summer of 2009, the official view of the U.S. was that the affiliates were focused solely on local concerns (i.e. overthrowing the rulers of their own countries). That June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the General Manager of al Qaeda, gave an interview in which he stated that the branches were an integral part of al Qaeda and that the leadership was ordering them to carry out attacks on the U.S. Six months later, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-assessed by the U.S. government as having purely local objectives-carried out an unsuccessful attack on the homeland. A few months later, Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani group tied to al Qaeda that was also viewed as having purely local concerns, attempted to blow up Times Square. Our failure to take seriously the "rhetoric" of al Qaeda leaders led to two near catastrophes.
This discussion also matters because the U.S. policy proposals that flow from these viewpoints are substantially different. If al Qaeda can be divided into a core leadership that has as its primary objective attacking the U.S. and affiliates that are not an integral part of that core (or at least not under real command and control), then it is possible to carry out a successful counter-terrorism (CT) strategy against the "core" and perhaps the leadership of the affiliates, while allowing regional partners to handle the local insurgencies of the affiliates themselves. If, however, al Qaeda is both core and affiliate, that is both high command and ground forces, and the leadership is able to exert real command and control functions, then CT methodologies -- and its foundation of attrition -- will not destroy al Qaeda or prevent its spread. The only method that we have for dealing with this sort of warfare is counterinsurgency.
In my next post, I'll expand on this assertion and give my take on how the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Ladin have affected al Qaeda.
ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
This piece was crossposted from the Afpak Channel.
In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015. There is little prospect that either election will be adequately funded or competently administered. But even if, by some miracle, they come off without a hitch, they will only serve to entrench the corrupt, over-centralized administration in Kabul, and do little to improve governance in the localities. Holding elections in Afghanistan in the midst of its long-running political crisis is a lose-lose situation.
The United States and United Nations should work with the Afghans instead to push for a grand political bargain that could actually make a difference in the counterinsurgency against the Taliban: a new Loya Jirga to amend the constitution, devolve power, adjust the electoral calendar, change the voting system, and invite the Taliban to form a political party. Neither Kabul nor the international community stands to gain from holding another round of elections, but a new political bargain can break the paralysis in Kabul and break the logjam in talks with the Taliban.
I. Devolve Power
Afghanistan's slow-burning political crisis began in 2003, when a Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in December to ratify a new constitution. The new document was modeled closely on the 1964 constitution, itself following closely in the footsteps of constitutions in 1923 and the 1890s. That a new democratic constitution was modeled on the older constitutional monarchy is telling: The new system simply replaced the hereditary Afghan monarch with an elected President and retained on paper many of the centralized powers that the Afghan kings had claimed (though not always exercised) since the late 19th Century. The new constitution was unanimously ratified by acclamation in January 2004.
The United States and the U.N. are often blamed for creating or forcing a centralized system onto the Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The accusation is wrong -- the centralized system came from the Afghans themselves, stemming from the century-old practice of Afghan rulers, and readily accepted by the Loya Jirga. But the point remains true that Afghanistan has one of the most highly centralized systems of government in the world. Provincial governments are not independent governments, like U.S. states, but implementing agencies of Kabul. Provincial councils are advisory, not legislative, bodies. Provincial governors and district chiefs are appointed by the president, not elected by the people. Provincial and district police chiefs are also appointed by the president, not by governors. That makes the president personally responsible for hiring and firing every governor and police chief in 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts nation-wide.
The centralization is almost completely unsuitable to Afghanistan's culture, economy, and society. According to Thomas Barfield's magisterial book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (arguably the most intelligent thing written on Afghanistan in a decade), the Afghan government has always claimed centralized powers, but has been most successful when it exercises those powers sparingly, or in cooperation with local elites like tribal elders and landowners. Efforts to use centralized government to compel social change tended to provoke resistance, as it did under the reign of the modernizing king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who was overthrown by a coalition of rural tribes and conservative mullahs; the communizing efforts of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1989); and the Islamizing efforts to the Taliban (1994-2001), the two most recent of which sparked civil war.
Despite the potential lessons of that history, the ten-year reign of Hamid Karzai looks more like Amanullah in his efforts to centralize power and push social reform, than that of Zahir Shah (1933-73), who took a more relaxed approach to the provinces and whose rule was marked by relative stability. Devolving power, for example by making governors elected and giving them the power of appointments in their province, giving provincial councils legislative power, and enabling provinces to levy their own taxes would bring the formal government into closer alignment with the informal practices that worked in the past.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
It's been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Qurans provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money.
Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits. It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can't want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort.
The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us.
There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy. Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won't be good enough -- the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.
Moreover, it is difficult to see how coalition forces can continue to pressure terrorists inside Pakistan if we write off Afghanistan. From where would we collect intelligence and base the forces and weapons we use in counter-terrorist strikes? How would we convincingly portray ourselves as different from what we are fighting? This war is ultimately won by delegitimizing our enemies, and that requires persuading the broader society that we can and will protect them, can and will help them improve the governance of their society -- not just forcing compliance.
Counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and costly. It requires an extraordinary level of discipline and discriminating intelligence all the way down the line, even of the most junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Even when we prove good at it, as we did in Iraq and are in Afghanistan, progress is slow and setbacks are numerous. We make this difficult task much more difficult by too little civilian power (why is the military running the anti-corruption task force?) and imposition of politically-expedient deadlines unconnected to achievement of our objectives. But alternative strategies are also deeply problematic, with costs and vulnerabilities often underestimated.
The corruption and unreliability of President Karzai is another significant impediment to achieving our goals in Afghanistan. But agreeing to his proposal for an end to Coalition military operations would actually hand him the country. It is instructive that other Afghan leaders object strongly to the proposal; they see the progress we are making. What is working in Afghanistan is the patient construction of capable local and regional governance by Coalition forces and Afghans working together. That is a threat to Karzai's power; it is also a threat to the Taliban, which is why they embarked on a campaign of assassinating Afghan officials and seek to sow distrust between the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces.
Which is why sticking with our strategy for Afghanistan through 2014 is so important. The 2014 elections in Afghanistan have the potential to institutionalize power in a country that has known little constraint, usher forth a new generation of Afghan leaders and coincide with Afghan security forces coming on line in numbers and proficiency to take over the work we are now doing. If we walk away before then -- or settle for just securing polling places rather than affecting the political ecosystem by our involvement -- we should expect Afghanistan to return to worse than how we found it in 2001. Our enemies will be emboldened, our friends will be punished, and our credibility will be deeply suspect.
Part of the reason the American public is inclined to question the war effort is that the president has put so little effort into defending it. But when given the opportunity to walk away from it, President Obama made clear this week that he intends to continue taking the fight to the Taliban, training Afghan National Security Forces so they can do the work Coalition forces are now doing, handing over those operations to Afghans with us in a supporting role to stabilize the transition, and remaining in some numbers in Afghanistan even after 2014. In recommitting himself to the agreed NATO strategy and its timeline, the president is finally leading the war effort.
President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks.
It sure feels like we are on a knife's edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day's developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this quote from an unidentified "Western official":
A Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his assessment, said he was hopeful that the anger over the shooting rampage could be overcome. The burning of Korans by U.S. troops on Feb. 20 -- which American officials said was accidental -- unleashed a wave of violent protests and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. military trainers, but the fury subsided after a few days.
"Everyone said the burning of the Korans was a turning point," he said. "It came and it went. My best analysis is that everyone saw the abyss, and no one wanted to jump in."
That was eerily reminiscent of what Bush policymakers believed after the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006. There was an immediate sectarian furor and then, as my former boss put it in an interview with Bob Schieffer, the Iraqis appeared to step back:
Mr. Hadley: ...So this is a society that has been tested for a while. The interesting point here is what conclusions the communities draw from this difficult week. They've stared into the abyss a bit. And I think they've all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities is not in their interest. And our hope and our ambassador spoke about this this week that in this tragedy there actually is an opportunity where all the communities will decide that really it is in their mutual interest to avoid the violence, pull together and construct the kind of unity government that can move this country forward.
SCHIEFFER: So you're saying they stared into the abyss. Are you saying this may be in some way bring them together?
Mr. HADLEY: That is the hope. Having seen -- having been tested in this way, having seen what the terrorists are doing and trying to provoke the communities. What was interesting is all the statements from all the leaders was that this tactic would not succeed, that the communities were going to stay together and work together and to try and avoid violence and build a unity government.
As we now know, after abating briefly, the sectarian strife intensified throughout 2006 and within months Iraq was trapped in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence. It took the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge to break that and put Iraq on a more positive trajectory.
Viewed through the lens of U.S. policy options, Afghanistan may be in a more perilous situation. Obama has already tried a surge; I doubt he could go to that option again even if he wanted to, which he shows no interest in doing.
The alternative that appears to be gaining momentum inside the Administration involves speeding the transition to Afghan control (ironically, precisely what the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended as the alternative to the Iraq surge back in 2006), and relying on counter-terrorism operations by U.S. forces to protect core U.S. interests. However, as Steve Biddle points out, that option is based on "unrealistic assumptions."
Specifically, advocates of this accelerated transition option have somehow convinced themselves that once we hand over the mission to Afghan leaders, we can step back from expensive nation-building while maintaining precision-strike counter-terrorism operations. But the Afghan leaders hate most those counter-terrorism operations and like most our expensive commitment to nation-building. Why would they be more inclined to allow us to do what they hate when we have curtailed what they most want?
Of course, our national interest in continuing counter-terrorism strike missions will not wane, so the more realistic choice after transition will be this unpalatable set of options: (1) defer to Afghan concerns, at the cost of an ever-enlarging sanctuary for the terrorist network; (2) shift to longer-range counter-terrorism strikes, ones that do not rely on host-nation support. The problems with #1 are obvious. The problems with #2 are that longer-range strikes are also less precise, so they will involve more civilian casualties, thus inflaming Afghan concerns still further. They are also likely to inflame our NATO allies, who are already queasy about the more precise drone-strikes.
We may be at the worst kind of turning point: One where every turn leads to a worse situation.
The Obama administration is sending contradictory messages on a crucially important national security subject. At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Leon Panetta seemed to accelerate the withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan from the end of 2014 -- what NATO nations have been committed to -- to "mid-to late 2013." In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan, warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."
The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks.
The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.
This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war. Because arbitrary timelines do not translate into having achieved the objectives that cause enemies to throw down their weapons. And it is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning. Interrogations with prisoners in Afghanistan have caused the American military to conclude that "Once ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."
Secretary Panetta's public affairs folks will likely spend a few days prettying up the mess, emphasizing the secretary was referring to the transition from combat operations to advising and training Afghans. But the damage has been done. As Michael Clarke of Britain's Royal United Services Institute said, "the suspicion that America is going to pull out early will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and there will be a rush to the exit." The Obama administration created this problem by the president's own arbitrary timeline. It is hard to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for playing politics with the issue; politicization is contagious, and allies caught it from President Obama.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.