Afghanistan: Obama Can’t Commit
The president can’t decide how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan.


Elise Jordan

Pres. Barack Obama has commitment issues. Two years ago, he decided to fight the war in Afghanistan. He ordered an additional 20,000 troops, then added another 30,000 — more than doubling the number of American soldiers on the ground, to nearly 100,000. It was clear even then, however, that he didn’t really believe in the mission — he was more concerned with domestic politics, fearing he would look weak if he did not do what his generals asked. Last week, he changed his mind again. While saying that “we are fulfilling our commitment,” he announced the start of troop withdrawals — the beginning of the beginning of the end. Again, it was mostly domestic politics that drove his decision: He offered Osama bin Laden’s death as the excuse, but his electoral prospects in 2012 played a larger role.

So having doubled the number of troops we have at war, Obama has undercut them with his indecisive speech. He’s like a man proposing to his prospective bride, who goes down on one knee with a $120 billion engagement ring in one hand and a prenuptial agreement in the other. Like marriage, war doesn’t work very well on such mixed signals.

A commitmentphobe makes for a poor commander-in-chief. It makes sense to move to a smaller footprint in Afghanistan and focus on counterterrorism. But the way Obama has gone about it has maximized the costs and minimized the benefits. It’s the same dynamic that has plagued his strategy from the first time he articulated it, at West Point in December 2009. He wanted to tell the Afghan people that we weren’t abandoning them, while telling his liberal base that we were leaving. But the messages got mixed up: The Afghans heard we were leaving, and his liberal base thought we were staying forever. He paid the political price at home — his base was outraged and the war became increasingly unpopular –without getting the strategic benefit of convincing our Afghan allies that we would be in the fight with them.

To save his war, Obama is now betting on the Afghan police and army we’ll be leaving behind. It’s the equivalent of that young couple with a prenup placing their future prospects in the hands of a marriage counselor who has yet to show up on time for an appointment.

Obama claimed that since the surge, “Afghan Security Forces have grown by over 100,000 troops.” That number, however, doesn’t tell the full story. A recent study, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, makes it clear that it’s going to take lots of U.S. support, and lots more years, for the Afghan Security Forces to be truly ready.

The study is worth reading in full. It cites “growing, systemic” fratricides by Afghan troops, who have gotten into the habit of killing the Americans sent there to train them. The study — commissioned because in the past 20 months, one coalition member has been murdered every twelve days by a member of the Afghan forces — condemned the numbers game Obama decided to play. The International Security Assistance Force’s  “emphasis on quantity over quality with regard to the ANSF’s [Afghan National Security Forces’] buildup has been self-destructive,” writes the author of the study.

There were more troubling findings. The team that produced the study conducted focus groups with U.S. soldiers and, separately, with Afghan soldiers. The U.S. soldiers surveyed categorized 50 percent of their Afghan counterparts as radical Islamists, and about 74 percent as regularly high on drugs — a harsh reality that Obama refuses to acknowledge. The Afghan soldiers surveyed said they believed a suicide bomber was more likely to go to heaven than an American soldier killed in Afghanistan. More offensively, Afghans claimed the American soldiers were “cowards,” hiding behind armored vehicles. “It seems extremely inappropriate, unethical, and outright naïve to try to build ‘trusted’ relations among ANSF members with such extremist religious beliefs and pejorative perspectives,” the report concludes. An American soldier interviewed for the study put it this way: “I wouldn’t trust the ANA [Afghan National Army] with anything, never mind my life.”

But by withdrawing American troops, Obama is implicitly putting his trust in the Afghan troops.

The instability sure to be created by Obama’s speech — the Afghans interpreted it to mean that the Americans were looking for the exits — is going to exacerbate the tensions already existing in the training program, doing even more damage to our efforts. Yet again, Obama has set a policy that has given us the worst of both worlds. Not a fast enough withdrawal to put an end to the war and not a strong enough commitment to fulfill the goals he still claims he wants to fulfill. It’s going to hurt morale among American troops, and decimate morale within the already shaky Afghan Army.

If it’s time to leave, then we should leave. If it’s time to stay, then we should stay. If Obama can’t make up his mind — well, then he should never have set the date for the wedding. When you can’t commit in war, what happens is: You lose.

Elise Jordan is a New York€’based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.