Politics & Policy

Afghanistan: The Way Forward

Conservative foreign-policy leaders weigh in.

National Review Online asked some eminent foreign-policy experts to assess President Obama’s speech regarding U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

Jamie M. Fly

After bucking political pressure from his base and sending a surge of forces to Afghanistan in December 2009, President Obama now appears to have finally succumbed to that pressure, now bolstered by some on the right who are skeptical of the prospects for success in Afghanistan. President Obama and other administration officials have justified his announced drawdown in forces by citing the gains made and the success achieved in attacking and disrupting al-Qaeda. It is true that the surge has resulted in significant gains over the last 18 months. But as General Petraeus and other military leaders have repeatedly emphasized, these gains are fragile and reversible.

In his effort to bring the full complement of the surge home by the end of next summer, the president is putting this progress at risk and raising the specter of a return to the under-resourced and unsuccessful strategy we followed in the years after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

By coupling this preemptive drawdown with meaningless rhetoric about “nation building at home” and other coded appeals to critics on both the left and the right who are weary of war and tempted to turn their backs on Afghanistan and other international challenges, the president appears to be returning to his progressive foreign-policy roots just in time for November 2012. Despite the president’s new tone, America is still at risk and our Afghan and coalition allies continue to look to America for leadership.

Last night’s announcement should give pause to those Republicans who have been tempted to criticize the president from the left and exploit growing foreign-policy fatigue in the country. They should now think instead about making the case for renewed American leadership, because an unwillingness to lead is becoming the hallmark of the presidency of Barack Obama and one of his greatest vulnerabilities.

— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.


John Hannah

Anyone else feel like they need a shower? The stench of politics was all over this speech. From start to finish, the president’s timetable for troop withdrawal appears driven by the need to appease his liberal base and secure reelection in November 2012. It was a more or less complete dissing of the recommendation of his field commander — whose strategy is largely responsible for the progress the president claimed — as well as the rest of the country’s senior military leadership. It’s hard to find any serious analyst ready to take the bet that Obama is making, i.e., that Afghan forces will be capable in 2012 of preserving the fragile gains won by the U.S. surge, or in 2014 of securing the entire country on their own. Of course, the president’s explicit timetable worsens the odds even further, sending an unambiguous signal that America’s march to the exits has begun, irrespective of the situation on the ground. Our Afghan friends — the very forces we expect to fill the void created by our drawdown — will be badly demoralized by what they heard, while our enemies in the Taliban and al-Qaeda will be rightly buoyed, convinced that they can wait us out and achieve their long-term goal of retaking power.

Time to focus on nation building at home, indeed: echoes of George McGovern’s “Come home America.” It didn’t work then. No matter how it was gussied up, the American people knew weakness and retreat when they saw it. Will the gambit fare any better 40 years later?

A commander-in-chief who prefers to speak of “ending wars responsibly” rather than achieving victory has just taken an enormously risky gamble on a national-security issue that he himself once identified as vital to American interests. We should all pray that his luck holds out.

— John Hannah, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was national-security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Victor Davis Hanson

President Obama is trying to square a lot of circles. In the Libyan misadventure, he does not wish to be either a wartime commander-in-chief or blamed for “losing Afghanistan”; the American people are sick of both the ingrate Afghans and Pakistanis and want out, and yet they do not wish to concede a victory to the odious and malicious Taliban after a decade of American sacrifice in lives and treasure and with a real chance that the country can still be saved; the president senses that General Petraeus has made progress in his counterinsurgency strategies, but, with the 2012 election looming, Obama cannot wait any longer for better news from the battlefield, in the manner of Bush’s patience with the Iraqi surge from late 2006 through 2008; and on and on.

A tough decision has to be made one way or another, but the Obama way is to vote present and set up the Obama ideal middle between two straw-men flawed poles: Some want to be isolationists; others wish to be serial nation-builders — but the great compromiser Obama wishes to be engaged sort of abroad. Some want to abandon Afghanistan; others want to keep the surge going and “win” the peace — but Obama will bring home troops but not all those committed to the surge.

Where does all this lead us? I think most agree on the mission: to protect the non-theocratic government in Afghanistan that ensures that the country will not be, in 9/11 fashion, turned over to al-Qaeda and other Islamists as a base from which to launch attacks on the West. The method was to so punish the Taliban and their Arab-terrorist allies that an Afghan army could emerge to protect the cities and major thoroughfares with reliance on U.S. military aid and air support. For all the doom and gloom, Generals Petraeus and Mattis have made significant progress, analogous, in an eerie sort of way, to the Abrams recovery that by 1974–75 had Vietnam sort of won — if America had had just enough will to ensure air support to enforce the peace accords; we did not, and the country was lost. In 2006, Iraq was literally declared, in the words of Senator Reid, “lost,” but Bush stuck it out and endured unprecedented venom (ironically from the likes of then-senators Obama, Biden, Clinton, etc.) and secured the country.

I think we can do the same in the next 15 months in Afghanistan, given the quality of our veteran troops and our superb top officers. In our despair, we fail to acknowledge that thousands of Islamists were obliterated in Anbar Province in Iraq; thousands have fled from or been killed in Afghanistan; hundreds of terrorists have been killed in Pakistan; the al-Qaeda leadership, from the top down, has been nearly obliterated; and the major Afghan cities still remain under the control of the Afghan government. But from the present speech I have no idea whether these troop withdrawals will accelerate and leave Afghanistan to the Taliban, or whether Obama thinks that he is soberly and judiciously backing out with guns blazing in the style of Vietnamization or Iraqization.

My own gut instinct is that General Mattis and General Allen can wind the war down, leaving a stable country, but only if their recommendations of troop withdrawals are accepted. We are on the hinge of history, unsure whether we swing to 1974 and give up, or swing back to 2006 and win. For those who demand immediate and complete withdrawal, a victorious Taliban will likely do to women and liberal reformers what the Vietnamese once did when they sent millions to camps or fleeing the country for their lives.  

Bottom line: I tried to fathom the president’s speech, and I sympathize with his dilemmas, but I have absolutely no idea what his ultimate strategy is — and can only pray the enemy does not either. And Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good” war that Obama once chest-thumped about and campaigned on with promises of seeing it stabilized, while the “bad” war in Iraq is one that he is now taking credit for, through following the very Bush-Petraeus plan that he once demonized.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

Pete Hoekstra

This discussion needs to be about more than troop levels! We all want our troops home, sooner rather than later. Where’s the plan?

What does success look like in Afghanistan? Why is it important to America and Americans? How will it be achieved? How does Afghanistan fit into the larger context of keeping America safe? These questions were not answered by our president last night.

Confronting, containing, and ultimately defeating radical jihadists is still an essential component of our national security. Once again we see a failure to lead, to articulate, and to demonstrate conviction on this effort. From day one of this administration, the threat from radical jihadists has been fought on a tactical level without any overarching and understandable strategy. There is no apparent plan. Reacting to current events is not a plan.

The more disturbing reality is that this tactical mindset is also being applied to our response to the “Arab Spring,” the most significant foreign-policy challenge/opportunity facing us today. Try putting our tactical decisions in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen under a single strategic umbrella: You cannot. President Obama does not have a set of guiding principles driving foreign policy; again, no plan. In a very dangerous world that is a very bad place to be. If you do not know where you want to go, have a destination, you will wander aimlessly. Sadly, that describes much of our foreign policy today.

— Pete Hoekstra, a former Michigan congressman, served as chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now president of Hoekstra Global Services, a national-security consulting firm.


Jim Lacey

This is not how you run a war.

If you are going to ask American military personnel to fight and die, then there is one rule that must be placed front and center: The cause must be worth the lives. If the cause is judged as not worth the commitment of blood and treasure, then the American military should be kept at home. If the cause is just and deemed worthy of risking American lives, then the president selects a commander he trusts, gives him his instructions, and then supports him with everything he has available. That does not mean the commander gets carte blanche. No president should ever give a commander enough leeway that he can get ahead of political objectives. For instance, Truman was right to fire Macarthur when he pushed for actions that would have expanded the Korean conflict far beyond anything the United States was prepared or willing to engage in.

However, when General Petraeus was ordered to Afghanistan he was told what his strategic objective was. To accomplish it, he asked for 50,000 additional troops. Although the soldiers and Marines were available, he was given only 30,000. Last night, the president announced that he was ordering 10,000 of those troops home before the end of the year. In doing so, he ignored the advice of his military advisers, who had asked to keep the troop level where it is for at least another year.

In war, generals never have everything they want to accomplish the mission they were assigned. That is usually because there is a lack of resources available to give them. In that regard, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld set a bad precedent when he hugely reduced the numbers of troops the Army chief of staff thought necessary to remove Saddam and to ensure stability in the wake of an American invasion. Thousands of Americans paid the price for that error.

President Obama is repeating that mistake in Afghanistan. He gave his chosen commander a set mission, and then gave him 40 percent fewer additional forces than that commander believed necessary. Now he is taking a third of those forces away a full year before his military experts believe he should, at least if the mission in Afghanistan remains the same.

I am on record (here and here) as believing that it is time to wrap up our involvement in Afghanistan. I believe that the cost is now far greater than the strategic benefits. If the president agrees with me, then he needs to start bringing our entire force home. If he continues to believe that we have large strategic interests in Afghanistan, then he has a duty to support his military commanders to the best of his ability. Unless the president is changing the nation’s objectives in Afghanistan, he is making a grave mistake by ignoring the advice of his military commanders.

Fighting a war by timetable is a recipe for failure. Our enemies are quite capable of watching the clock and observing what regions are becoming easier targets as Americans leave. With fewer troops available, the remaining ones are at greater risk. Worse, these brave men and women are being risked for a mission that becomes ever more unachievable as the size of the force dwindles.

Leadership does not mean splitting the difference. It means stepping up and doing whatever is necessary to reach your stated goals, or admitting that the goals are no longer worth the cost in blood and treasure and then withdrawing. Halfway measures almost guarantee a double loss: mission failure and wasted lives.

— NRO contributor Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is also the author of The First Clash and Keep From All Thoughtful Men. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense of any of its members. 

Clifford D. May

No surprises in this speech. No strategy either. President Obama said he launched the surge to prevent the Taliban from taking over large parts of Afghanistan. But withdrawing troops now and promising to withdraw more next year likely means the Taliban will retake large parts of Afghanistan.

Obama said he will tolerate no safe havens from which al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against the U.S. or its allies. But the Taliban is an al-Qaeda affiliate — and the Taliban will not break with al-Qaeda, ideologically or even operationally.

Obama also said: “This is the beginning, not the end, of our effort to wind down this war.” Throughout history, wars have been won and lost. Which wars have been wound down?

This was a political speech, so let me end with a little political analysis: In 2012, if the successes earned by American troops hold despite these withdrawals, Obama will have a strong talking point. But if, as a result of these withdrawals, the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their allies rise again, Obama’s reluctance to forge a strategy to defeat global jihadism — his insistence, against all the evidence, that “the tide of war is receding” in Afghanistan and on other fronts — will be very obvious to voters.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.


Bing West

In his speech, President Obama rejected General Petraeus’s strategy to retake more terrain in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The new commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, must now change the Petraeus strategy to accelerate “Afghanization.” For ten years, we spoiled the Afghans by fighting for them and giving them billions of dollars for doing nothing for themselves.

Now Allen must reverse this culture of entitlement and inject confidence into Afghan soldiers who are thrust into the lead in fighting their own war. The problem is that the Taliban are Pashtuns fighting in Pashtun tribal lands, while most of the Afghan Army are non-Pashtuns who speak a different language. Obama has put the burden of fighting and winning onto the Afghans, where it should be. But disaster will follow if the Afghan Army believes we are abandoning them.

This was the wrong war for nation-building. Counterinsurgency to win the hearts and minds of the Pashtun tribes separated from us by a thousand years of traditions was too ambitious. Our national-security objective was to prevent the Taliban from gaining the momentum to shatter the morale of the Afghan Army, resulting in the fall of Kabul and other cities. We can still prevent that, even while the Taliban continue to control rural and mountainous parts of the country.

Obama was upbeat about a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. If that did occur, the Taliban would be an armed Hezbollah-type faction still bent on subverting the state. So even under a truce, the Taliban and the Afghan Army will remain fierce enemies.

Because the speech will hearten the Taliban and concern the Afghan Army, Allen must move quickly to inject robust adviser teams, to include U.S. rifle platoons, into the Afghan battalions and move them into the lead, while guaranteeing them (via the advisers) both fire support and casualty evacuation. In return, Allen should demand a firm American voice in promotions and firings of Afghan commanders. Lastly, the U.S. Congress should reassure the Afghan Army that we will provide the resources, about $10 billion a year, for the next decade.

— Bing West is the author most recently of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan.



John Yoo

I will defer to others on whether President Obama’s drawdown is too quick, though it seems hasty to me at a time when we are just beginning to make progress in reversing the Taliban’s gains of the last few years. What struck me as disappointing and revealing was President Obama’s reason for the drawdown: “It is time to focus on nation-building at home.” Obama’s comment is disappointing because it shows he does not realize why the economy continues to suffer at home — not from a lack of spending, but because of too much government intervention. The last thing our economy needs right now is more Obama-style “nation-building.” His comment is revealing because it shows that Obama really is a product of the academic Left, which has long believed that America suffers from a lack of a strong state when compared with European welfare states.

— John Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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