Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight… Over Afghan Strategy

by Joshua Foust on 11/17/2010 · 4 comments

I have a new piece up at PBS Need to Know, discussing the strategic wrangling over Afghanistan strategy.

And what to make of all the public and contradictory wrangling over positions, troops and strategy? This is, sadly, what Washington has become in recent years: a mad dash, in public, for power, influence and triumph at all costs. I tend to regard such things as signal noise to be ignored, rather than detailed accounts of the policy process.

Much more worrying is how boxed-in Obama has become on Afghanistan. The congressional elections seriously weakened his ability to push back against a military hell-bent on continuing or even expanding further the war; earlier missteps, like firing not just one but two respected generals in Afghanistan, have further constrained his ability to exercise executive oversight over the specifics of military strategy. In a very real sense, we can consider the war in Afghanistan as existing outside civilian control.

Comments and hate mail, as always, are welcomed.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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carl November 18, 2010 at 12:16 am

Mr. Obama is still the commander in chief. If he gives a clear and firm order, it will be obeyed. He isn’t constrained if he is willing to make a firm decision and see it through in the face of very strong criticism. What constraints he has are self imposed. If he wants something done, he has to order it, not just vaguely muse about what would be nice and expect it to come true.

Michael Drew November 20, 2010 at 5:59 am

Wait, the firings were missteps? Wasn’t it understood a new approach would come with new leadership (McKiernan) and weren’t you clearly on the side that said he had no choice about McChrystal?

Joshua Foust November 20, 2010 at 12:15 pm

It was a mistake to fire McKiernan (I’ve argued that repeatedly and at length), and while it was proper to fire McChrystal, the entire process reflects extremely poorly on Obama’s ability to both manage the military, and to judge the qualifications of the people he chooses to lead it.

reader November 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm


That’s nonsense. Obama is the CIC, this war ends or goes on as long as he wishes it to. Congress gives money, and makes farcical “fact-finding” trips, but they long ago abdicated their responsibility when it came to war. The President is in charge. Obama is only constrained in any serious manner if there is an active conspiracy against his life, requiring that he maintain the war or expand it. Not that I buy into that, Obama is too spineless to require any such threat to keep him in line. Now a President Ron Paul or Nader or Kucinich might need to be “dealt with” by “serious leaders” in DC and elsewhere. The state apparatus of the US is huge and bureaucratic inertia combined with institutional loyalties serves to constrain a leader. But let’s not blame the Pentagon for Obama’s failings, not entirely.

Politically, Obama boxed himself in with his good Afghan war vs. bad Iraq war rhetoric. He also boxed himself in by choosing a crew of determined interventionists in his cabinet and elsewhere. Obama’s stuck with a deeply flawed foreign policy and you can’t blame the recurrent failures of this foreign policy on the Pentagon. What would happen to Obama if he broke ranks with the Pentagon and, more importantly, his backers, and pulled the US out of Afghanistan or followed through with his projected dates? Impeachment (not very likely), loss of reelection (most likely)? Thinking along this line it appears that Obama is unwilling to fall on the metaphorical sword for the good of the country. But he has to realize that half of the US will blame him for this boondoggle no matter what he does.

The theory of our brave boys being stabbed in the back by those pesky liberals is already resurrected and will be utilized no matter what Obama does. It is a simple, but effective theory that worked during the Reagan years, and of course Hitler and the boys made effective use of it as well.

I can’t help thinking that Obama is dithering because he is an interventionist and doesn’t know what to do, he is doing what his backers (the ones that count, not those ijits knocking on doors) would wish, or he is stuck in consensus mode (which is incredibly stupid when you consider the nature of Obama’s opponents). Of course, depending on consensus, for a leader, is a way of avoiding direct responsibility. And Obama does like to vote present. Also, he choose, or had chosen for him, people who represented a limited interventionist range of perspectives on Afghanistan. So no tears for the President. He is in a position of his own making, and blaming the Pentagon doesn’t adequately explain how he got here.

If he lets the Pentagon ride him on Afghanistan, he’s got nobody but himself to blame.

The treaty with Russia, on the other hand, is a place where Obama is constrained because of recent political elections. Congressional enemies of Obama are really messing with him on this issue.

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