Tag: drawdown

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the pace of America’s withdrawal and the size of its residual combat presence, even after his decision Wednesday, will depend on two things: negotiations with the Taliban and political pressure to stay the course. These two factors will feature prominently in the months ahead, as the administration reconfigures the strategy and objectives for winding down the 10-year campaign.

First, although many Afghans endorse engagement with the Taliban, in Washington, even broaching the subject of talks is divisive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that efforts were under way to negotiate with the Taliban; meanwhile, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believes the Taliban will not engage in serious talks until they are under extreme military pressure. In a way, both are right: a power-sharing arrangement would provide the best hope for sustainable peace, but no treaty, agreement, or contract is self-reinforcing and thus requires some leverage. Either way, constructive, face-to-face talks with senior Taliban leaders will be an intensive process, and one that diplomats and military officials must be prepared to defend publicly. America is not there yet.

The second force that will temper America’s eagerness to withdraw is the power of domestic political pressure. Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan hawks in the media decry anything less than a troop-intensive campaign. They endorse slow-paced, graduated troop cuts subject to conditions on the ground, a policy focused on entities other than those that threaten the United States. Dismantling al Qaeda, an outfit already in disarray, calls for counterterrorism, not state-building. This can be done relatively cheaply and with far fewer troops. Moreover, as seen in Yemen and Somalia, the United States can collect actionable intelligence without a large-scale conventional force on the ground.

Whether it is talking with the Taliban on the one hand, or staying the course on the other, the president has political goals, for which there is no clear strategy, and security progress, for which there is no definitive “victory.” Looking back, however, Obama has achieved some of the goals he set out. “Blueprint for Change,” his 2008 presidential campaign literature, states (pdf):

Obama will fight terrorism and protect America with a comprehensive strategy that finishes the fight in Afghanistan, cracks down on the al Qaeda safe-haven in Pakistan, develops new capabilities and international partnerships, engages the world to dry up support for extremism, and reaffirms American values.

To a certain degree, even these goals are ambitious. Instead, he should focus not on what is politically desirable, but what is within America’s ability to accomplish. In this respect, Obama would do well to revisit his December 2009 speech on the war in Afghanistan, when he said:

We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

He also said:

Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests…America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As U.S. forces eventually take a back seat in Afghanistan, Obama should strongly resist any calls that he has not done enough. Arguably, he has gone above and beyond what would have been a more prudent strategy. Now, it is time to come home.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

A Debate About Troops

The United States will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan this July. The White House is desperately trying to seize the narrative of the withdrawal claiming that the cuts will be “real” even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is arguing for the opposite.

This week, the New York Times revealed that some in President Obama’s national security team are seeking steeper reductions, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden and the increasing costs of the war.

Steeper reductions are certainly warranted. A limited counterrorism mission must be on the table.

The president will try to claim credit for keeping his pledge to reduce the U.S. troop presence, but when we consider that there are three times as many troops in Afghanistan today compared to when Obama took office, a reduction of 3,000-5,000 (out of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops there) won’t mean much.

Another fold in the Times story is that Secretary Gates and top military commanders in the field are arguing for gradual cuts—not steep reductions. Let’s remember last summer’s Rolling Stone article that profiled the now retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He was asked to leave because he made comments that undermined civilian control of the military. Today, albeit in a far less severe manner, military commanders are walking the line of advocating a direction in policy that is at odds with civilians officials.

This underscores a far deeper problem with military policymaking: who controls what exactly?

What Obama decides on for reduction in groundtroops—a token withdrawal or steeper cuts—will partly reflect how confused the Constitutional roles and chain of command has become in the conduct of war.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

War in Iraq Not Over

President Obama will not declare “mission accomplished” in his prime-time speech on Iraq tonight, nor should he. He should not claim that a flowering democracy has been created in Iraq. He should not make unrealistic predictions about the long-term prospects for that shattered country.

The war isn’t over for the 50,000 U.S. troops left behind in Iraq. The president should recognize the sacrifice of all our troops, who have performed admirably. The war won’t be over for Americans back home until every last man and woman in uniform returns home safely from a conflict that has claimed so many lives and consumed so much treasure.

The president should reaffirm the strategic rationale for the drawdown set in motion by the Bush administration in consultation with the Iraqi government. Leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another seven years will not make Americans safer. U.S. troops should not try to fashion a functioning state in Iraq. That task is the responsibility of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

As our troops work hard to execute their mission, however, a rising chorus of voices is working diligently against the ultimate goal of U.S. withdrawal and Iraqi self-sufficiency. Some people are advising the president to leave a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq, essentially arguing that the United States is the rightful guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty, and that the Iraqis simply can’t be trusted with security matters. The president has wisely turned aside such recommendations in the past, and should do so again.

In Afghanistan, What’s News?

In a recent interview with the New York Times, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, argued “against any precipitous withdrawal of forces by July 2011,” and added he did not take over merely to “preside over a ‘graceful exit.’”

That an active-duty army general is committed to a pending military engagement is nothing new. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts about this interview, and the rest of the general’s weekend “media blitz,” that I think are worth sharing.

First off, that Petraeus is against a “precipitous withdrawal” reminds me of the many straw man arguments bandied about during the most explosive days in Iraq. However, back then, even the staunchest (and more serious) anti-Iraq War critics did not endorse high-tailing it out of Mesopotamia, logistics be damned. Not only was a phased exit strategy deemed strategically necessary, but also the only option that was considered politically feasible. Today, in the case of Afghanistan, to suppress al Qaeda in a cost-effective manner, America and its allies could easily scale-down its campaign to a much narrower counterterrorism mission. Of course, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but Petraeus’s gratuitous “precipitous withdrawal” comment implies that critics of the present policy (a massive, long-term nation-building campaign) have no coherent or well-thought out alternative. That is certainly not the case.

Second, as my colleagues and I ask continuously, the issue is not exclusively about where we intend to fight, but rather how we intend to fight. More importantly, the question we need to ask in the case of Afghanistan is not “is Afghanistan winnable?” but rather “what do we hope to accomplish?” To endorse an open-ended nation-building mission blithely ignores the uncomfortable truth that “American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan” who are fueling the very corruption and warlordism that we are pressing President Karzai to curtail. It neglects the perverse reality that the United States is “essentially waging a proxy war” against its ostensible ally, Pakistan. Perhaps even worse, it dismisses the fact that we are incinerating hundreds of billions of dollars—during a time of economic peril, no less—on a corrupt and illegitimate central government in Kabul that has every incentive to perpetuate the conflict.

The July 2011 drawdown should continue as the Obama Administration pledged. Government planners in Washington should begin to husband our nation’s ever-diminishing financial resources rather squander them, and learn how to manage our own affairs, not others’.