The Corner

A Commander-in-Chief & His Lieutenant

The president was underwhelming at West Point.  On one of the gravest strategic issues of our time, the golden orator of our political scene labored through his compulsories to make the case for why we should win a war that if we lose will invigorate the jihadist cause, put untenable pressure on the governments of Pakistan and India (to say nothing of the tragedy for Afghanistan), potentially put al-Qaeda in possession of nuclear weapons, and increase the risk of future attacks on our homeland.  It was not a performance that will give heart to Afghans, countries in the region whose security depends on our success, or allies with forces committed to this fight.  Or, I suspect, persuade many Americans who do not already support his policy.

Most striking was the dramatic mismatch between the dire consequences of failure and the very limited means the president intends to bring to bear.  The goals he has established for Afghanistan cannot be achieved in the time frame he committed to begin withdrawing troops in. Afghanistan fell 2,000 recruits short last month alone in meeting its current goal of 134,000 soldiers and 83,000 police.  The president’s new approach envisions producing additional Afghan forces superior in quantity and quality to the present.  That is wildly unrealistic.

To emphasize in the same breath the importance of increased forces and the necessity of removing them in eighteen months will badly diminish the positive effect those troops are intended to have.  The point of counterinsurgency approach is to protect the population so that they participate in security efforts and change the political dynamic of the war.  The president was silent on what he will do if his objectives are not achieved. 

As in Iraq, the president doesn’t have an exit strategy, he has an exit timeline.  He did not outline the positive conditions that must be met for our withdrawal to proceed.  He did not provide a vision of an Afghanistan that is capable of achieving what we need for our country to be secure.  He provided an absolute withdrawal date that will encourage our enemies to game the timeline, and discourage our friends from helping.

He brushed lightly over election fraud in Afghanistan, saying that despite it, a government was formed “consistent with the country’s laws and constitution.”  I’m not sure what that even means, but I am sure it will give encouragement to despots that the president of the United States is legitimating fraudulent elections by such contorted logic. 

Toward the end of his speech, the president spoke of “might and moral suasion,” which turn out to be the only tools of American power three months of additional review.  We still don’t have a strategy for Afghanistan.  We only have a military strategy for Afghanistan.  Where was the “dramatic increase in our civilian effort” the president promised in March?  There were literally no political, economic, agricultural, judicial, drug enforcement, or educational programs included in the president’s speech.  When he spoke briefly of non-military matters, it was only to press for reforms of the Karzai government. 

And the president asked for no effort from the 99 percent of Americans who are not in our military.  We are still not a country at war, we are a military at war.

On a personal note, it made ring hollow the president’s claims to virtue in the extended duration of his second Afghanistan review in ten months to see a former student of mine at West Point, Lt. Dan Berschinski in the audience.  He is now a double amputee, having suffered his wounds on patrol in Afghanistan during the months the president was methodically considering his options. 

The president kept 68,000 soldiers and Marines in harm’s way while he pondered whether it merited his political capital to pay the ticket price of his grand rhetoric about this good war, this war of necessity, that had been scandalously under-resourced.  Afghanistan remains all of those things, even after the president’s “new” new Afghan strategy.

 – Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an Associate Professor at West Point. She was director for defense strategy on the NSC and deputy director of policy Planning at State.

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