When a president from the liberal wing of the Democratic party defies part of his political base in order to protect the national security and vital interests of the United States, it is not wise to begrudge him a measure of praise. In his speech last night, President Obama correctly framed the threat we face and set forth a generally sound political-military concept of operations. However, by setting an artificial deadline for the start of a drawdown for the surge of 30,000 new troops, he undermined his own policy by sending a mixed signal about his commitment to success. Therefore, only two cheers.
The president deserves praise for the way he has defined the problem. The United States faces a syndicate of violent extremist groups — al-Qaeda among them — that is based in western Pakistan. This syndicate seeks to launch transnational terrorist attacks (al-Qaeda), to destabilize Afghanistan (Taliban, Haqqani group, and Hezbe Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), and to challenge the Pakistani government (Pakistani Taliban). It is noteworthy that President Obama, unlike some of his advisers, did not contrive to portray an illusory distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban regime played host to al-Qaeda in the 1990s, and if the Taliban prevails in this struggle, it will do so again. The right way to think about the problem is that we face a single threat that radiates in three directions.
In addition, the president deserves plaudits for rejecting a narrow counterterrorist strategy – essentially drone attacks on steroids — and for adopting a strategy for defeating the enemy by working with and strengthening our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A narrow counterterrorist strategy was tried in the 1990s, and it failed. We have targeted and killed scores of senior and mid-ranking Taliban commanders, but this has not stopped the progress the enemy has made on the ground. While the drone attacks in western Pakistan have eliminated some senior terrorist leaders, they have not had a decisive effect on the terrorists’ operations. The only formula that can produce enduring success is for the United States to support and partner with the Afghan and Pakistani governments to secure and police their territories.
The president has also rightly endorsed the counterinsurgency approach articulated by General McChrystal. This approach is based on using the persistent presence of forces at the local level to protect the population from attacks and intimidation by the Taliban and to facilitate intelligence cooperation, establishment of effective governance, and promotion of local economic development to give the people a stake in the new order. It recognizes the need to build up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The new approach will also make better governance and economic growth political-military priorities. Progress can be, and has been, achieved in these areas when the United States has adopted the right kind of collaborative problem-solving approach with the Afghan government. McChrystal’s report signals that he would take us in that direction. The president also rightly framed the mission of the surge as suppressing violence to levels that Afghan forces, after their buildup, could handle with more limited U.S. support.
Moreover, when the president signaled to Pakistan that we will not “tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear,” he demonstrated a new realism about the problematic conduct of elements of the Pakistani security establishment, which has permitted the development of sanctuaries in its territory. At the same time, he set the right tone by indicating to Pakistan that the United States sought a long-term relationship that would be broader than counterterrorism and that would address the development issues central to the future of the Pakistani people.
However, the failure of the speech lay in sending a mixed signal. Success depends on convincing all parties in Afghanistan and throughout the region of America’s long-term commitment. Absent such a commitment, political spoilers in Afghanistan will maintain relationships with neighboring powers as an insurance policy against a U.S. withdrawal. In addition, regional powers will support armed groups in Afghanistan — including the Taliban — in order to maintain a friendly force for the regional proxy war that would inevitably follow a premature NATO departure.
The president signaled an equivocal commitment in three ways:
(1) He downsized the surge of U.S. forces from the 40,000 set forth in the McChrystal report to 30,000, counting on the difference to be made up by other NATO partners. This ignores the fact that the forces of few other countries match ours in terms of effectiveness and skill in counterinsurgency.
(2) The president did not set new, higher end-strength targets for the ANSF’s main components, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The McChrystal report called for total ANSF strength to be increased to 400,000. The transfer of security operations to the Afghans cannot fully take place until such a level is attained. The administration is not articulating new end-strength targets and will only set year-by-year targets for ANSF development. Yet the size and capability of the ANSF we plan to build is a primary indicator in the region for whether we are committed to creating an Afghan government strong enough to stand on its own feet.
(3) The president’s emphasis on setting a timeline of July 2011 for the start of the drawdown of U.S. forces will be read in the region as an equivocal commitment. The enemy will just let the clock run, and all actors in the region will hedge in ways that harm our prospects for success.
To be sure, a close reading of the president’s speech could allay some of these concerns. The timeline is meant to trigger actions “to begin” the drawdown our forces. The rate of the drawdown itself will be based on conditions in the field. In a passage in which he directly addressed the Afghan people, the president spoke of creating a “lasting friendship in which America is your partner.” Still, while the speech signaled a commitment to succeed in Afghanistan, the benefits of this signal in the region will be substantially undermined by the inclusion of the artificial deadline to start the drawdown.
The speech also had an air of unreality in one potentially fatal respect — the speed with which the president assumes the U.S. government can act on his strategy. His effort is built around a military surge that will last only 18 months, and he noted that the first additional military forces will arrive in Afghanistan early next year. However, the lags in implementation for many other aspects of the program — building up the ANSF, agricultural assistance, etc. — will be much longer than the 18-month window. It is difficult to believe that the ANSF could approach needed levels before 2013. For all new civilian programs — ones that do not have existing appropriations — there will be no effects on the ground until a supplemental bill has been submitted and enacted, funding reaches department and agency accounts, bidding and contracting processes have been completed, funds have been obligated, contractors have mobilized capacities in country, and the actual work on projects gets underway. It is not unusual for this process to take 12 to 18 months. The risk is that the civilian and military aspects of the effort will be out of phase with each other.
Success in war seldom comes from plans to provide just enough force and no more. The wiser course is to identify what would be the decisive force needed to succeed. President Obama has gotten a lot right on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the conceptual level. However, a clear commitment to success counts in this region. It is better to overwhelm the enemy than to beat him in a close-run contest. The addition of new forces, operating on a sound strategy, will have a positive effect. The key unknown is whether the president has left himself open to failing by trying to be too clever by half.
– Marin Strmecki is senior vice president and director of programs at the Smith Richardson Foundation, a private foundation that supports public-policy research and analysis. From 2003 through 2005 he served as Afghanistan policy coordinator for the secretary of defense.