Author: Matěj Jungwirth (Beloit College, USA)

President Barack Obama greets cadets after deliving a sppech on Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in December 2009. [Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, 12/1/09]

Introduction

On December 1st 2009, the President Barack Obama, speaking at the West Point Academy, announced to the nation his order to deploy additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan in order to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”[1] Accusing the Taliban of providing safe haven to al Qaeda’s members in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, the President proceeded to outline the objectives that this surge was meant to achieve: stopping the Taliban’s advancements into Afghanistan, strengthening the capacity of the Afghan security forces, and gradually handing more responsibility to the Afghan government. Obama then cautioned that this troop increase was far from an “open-ended” escalation, and stressed that the phased withdrawal of the US troop will commence within 18 months, in mid-2011.[2]

Although the commander-in-chief appeared resolute and decisive when announcing his gravest foreign policy decision up to the date, the road to it had been bitterly contested and revealed deep divisions between the military and civilian parts of the US government. Disagreements arose with regards to the overarching American objectives in the region, the number of troops deployed, and the competence of the Karzai government. Even though Obama encouraged and listened to competing policy proposals, the decision he ultimately opted for was neither wise nor fortunate. By settling for a policy that strived to compromise between the military and civilian recommendations, Obama’s surge undermined its own objective of striking hard against the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus and, consequently, stabilizing Afghanistan.

Background

Unlike the war in Iraq, which Obama once labeled as the “dumb war,” the Commander in Chief assessed war in Afghanistan more favorably, calling it a “war of necessity.”[3] This explains why the freshly inaugurated President quickly acquiesced to the military’s request of sending additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan in March 2009, which increased of the US military personnel in there to 68,000.[4] However, even with those new units on the ground, the security situation on Afghanistan continued to deteriorate swiftly, and as the number of attacks against ISAF forces sharply increased in the summer of 2009 (see appendix), it became clear that the coalition forces began losing momentum. It was in this context that General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of the coalition troops in Afghanistan, wrote his classified assessment of the situation that ignited the debate within the US government over how to react to the budding Afghan insurgency.

The Pentagon Proposal

Even though McChrystal had been in charge of the ISAF for mere three months when he sent his report to the Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it demonstrated a cogent and realistic understanding of the uneasy position of the ISAF forces. McChrystal’s own words conveyed a high sense of urgency: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”[5] Nonetheless, there was still a tone of cautious optimism present: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”[6] In order to achieve this success, McChrystal proposed to promptly inject further approximately 40,000 American troops into the country and to bring the total number of the trained Afghan security forces to 400,000. Lastly, McChrystal criticized the very strategy that ISAF units resorted to: “Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”[7] Accordingly, McChrystal believed that the coalition forces, led by Americans, direly needed to fully embrace a more population-centered counterinsurgency campaign (COIN), which would improve security, as well as governance, and economic opportunities for Afghans.[8]

The nearly-fanatical obsession with the COIN strategy was shared by almost all of Obama’s top military advisers and, as Bob Woodward observes: “Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual had become a hymnal for young Army officers, who were promoted if they mastered its songs.”[9] This unfaltering faith stemmed from the conviction that it was the COIN strategy that helped turn Iraq in 2007 around, despite “a strong evidence that […] the ebb of sectarian violence and the decision by Sunni tribal leaders to stand against al-Qaeda had been in play” well before the surge troops poured into Baghdad.[10] Thus, when McChrystal was asked at a public lecture in London whether a limited counterterrorist strategy could not be sufficient in degrading Taliban’s and Al-Quaeda’s capacities, he sternly refuted, although the White House was still deliberating the topic.[11]

General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, the highest echelons of the Pentagon issued a classified memo in late September 2009, in which three possible courses of actions were outlined. First involved sending mere 10,000 troops to train the Afghan security forces. Second asked for 40,000 for a classic COIN, and the last one comprised 85,000 soldiers for a very robust COIN.[12] When McChrystal briefed Obama and his advisers, he was well aware that the high-end option was “dead on arrival,” and he portrayed the low-end option as “ineffectual,” effectively presenting the middle option, championed by the military, as the only viable one.[13] In the fall of 2009, the Pentagon put its weight behind a large troop increase in Afghanistan that would carry out a comprehensive COIN campaign that would, it was hoped, stop the advancements of Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Tacit, yet understood, was the acknowledgment that such a large injection of troops for extended period of time would effectively amount to a “nation-building endeavor.”[14]

Civilian Rebuttals

The forceful push for more troops in Afghanistan by the military advisers was met by a staunch opposition from the civilian members of Obama’s government. Wary, of an unchecked military, the President himself personally asked the Vice-president Joe Biden to assume the role of devil’s advocate and to “ask the toughest questions [he] can think of.”[15] True to his role, Biden pressed the military hard, particularly on two issues he saw as most salient: the connection between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the downplayed flipside of the COIN strategy – the Afghan government. Biden poignantly pointed out that in the absence of the evidence that “Taliban advocates attacks outside of Afghanistan and on the US,” the main efforts should rather focus on Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas where al-Qaeda had its safe havens.[16] Secondly, Biden wrote in a private memo to the President, there was a number of components essential to COIN that were not in American hands: “a credible partner in Kabul, basic governance and services, and competent Afghan security forces,” most prominently.[17]

Biden’s point about the necessity of a credible and capable Afghan government for a successful COIN was further corroborated by Karl. W. Eikenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, who wrote in his cable to the Secretary of State: “The proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty.”[18] However, the Ambassador asserted, “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development.”[19] Finally, in a direct contradiction of the military, Eikenberry, a retired three star general himself, argued that sending additional forces might actually “delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable.”[20] Instead of COIN, Biden, Eikenberry and other civilian advisers pushed for a “counter terrorism plus” option, which would focus on striking al-Qaeda targets in both Afghanistan and Pakistan with special forces and drones that could be carried out without a dramatic and costly expansion of the US ground presence in Afghanistan.[21]

The Deliberator in Chief

In the fall of 2009, the recently elected President Obama found himself in an unenviable position – he had to effectively deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and, at the same time, defend the war against an increasingly skeptical domestic public opinion.[22] However, true to his conviction that Afghanistan was an example of a “good war,” and possibly influenced by McChrystal’s unscripted London remarks against a more limited approach, Obama took the option of de-escalating the engagement in Afghanistan off the table in the September of 2009.[23]

The analysis of the President’s deliberations over the further course of the US policy in Afghanistan underscores how seriously Obama took the issue. After receiving McChrystal’s request for more troops, Obama conducted ten top-level meetings prior to reaching his ultimate decision.[24] In a stark contrast to his predecessor, Obama assembled a relatively high number of senior civilian and military advisers for those meetings, and earnestly encouraged voices of dissent.

Furthermore, the President himself did not hesitate to ask the military commanders thorny questions about their favored recommendation of full 40,000 troops. At one meeting, Obama bitterly complained to Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “You have essentially given me one option.”[25] Facing a steadfast intransigence on the behalf of his military advisers and worried about being seen as a Democratic president weak in foreign policy, Obama at last heeded to Leon Panetta’s counsel that “no Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it.” [26] Therefore, Obama chose the military proposal over the counterterrorism plus option, but only after significant adjustments were made.

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Haunted by the prospects of a prolonged, costly and bloody Vietnam-like entanglement, Obama revised the Pentagon’s COIN proposal. Unwilling to “leave [Afghanistan] to his successor,” just like he himself inherited two wars, Obama committed only 30,000 troops and asked the NATO allies to make up for the difference. Furthermore, an agreed upon exit timetable was promoted to the sine qua non of the surge.[27] Apart from preventing the American involvement from dragging on indefinitely, the President believed that the fixed departure date offered the additional benefit of coercing the Karzai government to accept its share of responsibility sooner, of and removing the “Taliban’s talking point that [the US] will permanently occupy the country.”[28] Even though his final decision was more in accordance with the military’s proposal, the President’s insistence on an early withdrawal date betrays his private fears, reinforced by his civilian advisers, of a bloody and open-ended deployment.

Evaluation

However noteworthy and laudable Obama’s inclusive, “multiple-advocacy” approach to the decision making regarding the surge in Afghanistan might have been, the outcome of these deliberations was certainly much less so.[29] By acquiescing to both his military advisers (in larger part) and his civilian aides (in smaller part), the President crafted a policy that took the worst of both worlds. For one, Biden himself recognized that the COIN campaign, for which the troops were requested, takes on average seven to ten years to be successfully implemented.[30] The mere 18 months given to the surge severely diminished this long-term potential of COIN.

Moreover, as Kael Weston, a political advisor to Marine General Nicholson, observed: “the surge and the deadline were the worst possible combination,” because of the message it sent to both the US forces and, equally importantly, to the Afghan civilians.[31] The sooner would be less strategically considerate in their operations, focusing on short term gains achievable within the relatively narrow time frame, whereas the latter’s belief that the coalition forces would ensure their safety until a stable Afghan government could take over the country would be shattered. The US had, in fact, betrayed those Afghans who came forward to its help since it leaving these allied citizens vulnerable to Taliban retaliation. As Weston noted, instead of a massive American buildup, the Afghans wished for a lasting, possibly smaller, presence that would demonstrate the longevity of American “support to the Afghan people.”[32]

Similarly, other assumptions underlying the surge rationale proved wrong: Far from emancipating itself, the Karzai government, representing one of the most foreign aid-dependent countries in the world, had very little incentive to actively assist the withdrawal of their wealthy benefactors, and remained thoroughly corrupt and incompetent.[33] As to the alleged close connection between Taliban and Al-Quaeda, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn point out that: “in the last three years (2007-10) the Taliban have taken considerable care in their public statements to implicitly distance themselves from al-Qaeda.”[34] This is a far-reaching observation, for it effectively debunks one of the central arguments for the surge, and sheds new light on the wisdom of linking Taliban, an entity without international ambitions, to al-Qaeda, which still undoubtedly posed a vital threat to the US national security.

Lastly, the surge did not succeed in containing the rising tide of insurgency in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, in 2010 when the additional US troops arrived, the number of enemy-initiated attacks skyrocketed. This development retroactively validated Ambassador Eikenberry’s worries that the Pentagon planners seriously underestimated the potential backlash of a mission expansion.

Afgh-ISAF-Data-Oct-2012-EIA

Source: http://www.longwarjournal.org/assets_c/2012/11/Afgh-ISAF-Data-Oct-2012-EIA-1281.php

Conclusion

The tragedy of Obama’s decision-making process regarding the surge in Afghanistan is not the absence of qualified advices, but the fact that the President ultimately tried to merge two competing proposals into one. Although Obama acquiesced to his military advisers’ recalcitrant request for a troop increase, the central tenet of the COIN strategy had been marred by the President’s decision to deploy these troops only under a fixed withdrawal timetable. This resulted in military being given roughly the number of troops it requested, but not the time allowance needed to ensure a lasting impact in Afghanistan. The success of the surge had been further diminished by Pentagon’s uncritical faith in COIN, by the misreading of the Taliban-Al-Qaeda dynamics, and by the grossly optimistic faith in the capability of the Karzai government. In his September 2009 article, Rajiv Chandrasekaran recommended to the President: “Either you go all-in or you fold.”[35] Sadly enough, the failure of the Obama’s compromise in the Afghanistan surge renders Chandrasekaran correct.

Endnotes:  

[1]”Obama’s Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, December 2009.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3]”American Opinions on Afghanistan.” The Economist 20 Aug. 2009: Print.

[4]Pfiffner, James P. “Decision making in the Obama White House.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41.2 (2011): 244+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. p. 256.

[5]Woodward, Bob. “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure'” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “In Afghanistan, the Middle Ground May Be Most Perilous.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

[9]Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 191.

[10]Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. New York: Vintage, 2013. Print. p. 123

[11]Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 194.

[12] Ibid. p. 192.

[13]Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. New York: Vintage, 2013. Print. p. 125

[14] Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “In Afghanistan, the Middle Ground May Be Most Perilous.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

[15] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 160.

[16] Ibid. p. 187.

[17]Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. New York: Vintage, 2013. Print. p. 132.

[18] Ibid. 130.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. p. 129.

[21] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 159.

[22] According to Washington Post-ABC News polls, in September 2009, full 51% of Americans believed that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.

[23]Pfiffner, James P. “Decision making in the Obama White House.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41.2 (2011): 244+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. p. 255.

[24] Ibid. 256.

[25] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 278.

[26] Ibid. p. 247.

[27] Ibid. p. 280.

[28] Ibid.

[29]Pfiffner, James P. “Decision making in the Obama White House.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41.2 (2011): 244+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. p. 259.

[30] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. p. 166.

[31]Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. New York: Vintage, 2013. Print. p. 135.

[32] Ibid. p. 128.

[33] See: Steil, Benn. “Afghanistan’s Dependence on Foreign Aid.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

[34] Kuehn, Felix, and Alex Strick Van Linschoten. “Separating the Taliban from Al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan.” NYU Center on International Cooperation(2011): Print. p. 7.

36Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “In Afghanistan, the Middle Ground May Be Most Perilous.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Source: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/11/natos_international.php

Works cited:

“American Opinions on Afghanistan.” The Economist 20 Aug. 2009: Print.

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “In Afghanistan, the Middle Ground May Be Most Perilous.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. New York: Vintage, 2013. Print.

Kuehn, Felix, and Alex Strick Van Linschoten. “Separating the Taliban from Al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan.” NYU Center on International Cooperation(2011): n. pag. Print.

“Obama’s Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, December 2009.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

Pfiffner, James P. “Decision making in the Obama White House.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41.2 (2011): 244+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Steil, Benn. “Afghanistan’s Dependence on Foreign Aid.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Woodward, Bob. “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure'” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.