Our Appalling Strategic Incoherence

by Joshua Foust on 1/26/2011 · 6 comments

Barack Obama, December 2009:

These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

Barack Obama, January 2011:

In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

This might seem like a semantic difference, but it’s really not. In 2009 President Obama said we wanted to, basically, destroy al Qaeda so that it will never threaten us again. Now, he’s walked back what we’re doing to merely denying them access to Afghanistan. Yes, it is a subtle shift. But also an important one.

Think about what that says about his concept of the war. We can start with the casual conflation of the Taliban and al Qaeda—something that just doesn’t jibe with any facts about the Taliban’s senior leadership (see, for example senior RFE/RL reporter Abubaker Siddique discuss the Taliban’s outlook for an idea of what I mean, or just buy Alex and Felix’s book when it comes out this May). “Preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people” also works at odds with President Obama’s desire, stated elsewhere, for a political settlement to end the war.

But much more importantly, our strategy in Afghanistan is defined by absence. Does that make sense? How do you know when you’ve accomplished it? According to President Obama, we win if al Qaeda doesn’t build a safe haven in the country. This means the war is either already won, or it will never be won—al Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Afghanistan, or, alternatively, we must stay there forever to make sure it never has a safe haven in Afghanistan.

And what happened to Pakistan? Well, President Obama said progress, and something about Arabs and safe havens. Meaningless.

It’s no wonder the military can’t say why they think we’re winning. The White House won’t give them something to win, and the little bit they dole out changes every 18 months.

Also, ever notice that President Obama has only talked about progress and “taking the fight to the enemy” since getting in the White House? The sentiment is so universal I actually couldn’t find a single instance of his admitting mistakes, set backs, or stalled progress in Afghanistan, though you could maybe see the sudden firing of General McKiernan as a tacit admission of such. Anyway, it makes for a really strong contrast with Candidate Obama, who, in 2007, took a lot of flack from the Right when he criticized the sloppy, raid-heavy and civilian-casualty-heavy approach of General McNeill.

Candidate Obama was, of course, correct to complain that overly aggressive tactics and high civilian casualties were counterproductive and bolstered insurgent support amongst Afghans. President Obama seems to have forgotten that. I wonder what’s changed.


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This post was written by...

– 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 Registan.net. 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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{ 6 comments }

Joe Dixon January 26, 2011 at 11:21 am

Is this not a classic case of an individual’s promises made while campaigning being watered down by the people actually in charge making them? From reading Bob Woodward’s book (aside from the great Obama quote at the beginning – “I’ve been worried about losing this election. After talking to you guys [John Podesta and Mike McConnell], I’m worried about winning this election.”) I get the impression that the machinations of US policy-making are so long-winded and subject to the influence of so many different characters, that it’s a wonder that anything gets done.

It’s not entirely fair, I feel, to heap all the blame for an issue as complex as Afghanistan on one man. But perhaps that’s the price we pay for placing individuals in such positions.

Obama’s desire to not be at war, under any circumstances, does not jibe with any concept of counterinsurgency warfare, be it 50’s-70’s Communist stuff, or the more complex “archipelago” situation that some people suggest we’re in at present. It seems that Obama wants out, hence the July 2011 situation, but that he doesn’t necessarily grasp the concept of counterinsurgency as being about “end-state, not end-date.”

M Shannon January 26, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Obama’s problem is that the public have been fed the “fight them there so we don’t fight them here” nonsense for so long by both parties that if he came clean he’s be lucky to win the Democratic nomination in 2012 let alone the election. So he continues with the myth that Afghan gravel pits were essential to planning 9/11 and that Afghanistan is a necessary base for AQ ops when they already have large swatches of Pakistan, Yemen etc.

The Republicans are no better. Rudolph Guliani, this week on CNN, repeated the falsehood that Iraq had nuclear weapons and posed a threat to the US. The old “weapons of mass destruction” – “nuclear program” bait and switch still works on most journalists.

Meanwhile Robert Gates has “promised” the POTUS (you’d think he’d have been ordered) that he will cut defence spending by 2% (or perhaps cut the increase by 2%) !

If you’re stationed in Germany or Italy and enjoying your weekend getaways at a military chalet don’t worry you’re not going anywhere. The defense establishment and its friends in both parties has no interest in undoing some of the damage they’re doing to the US.

DPTrombly January 27, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I don’t like to blame it all on one man, but it’s hard to excuse Obama for getting us into this situation when he seemed to know what the issues were going into things and has had multiple opportunities to redefine the US strategy in Afghanistan.

The bizarre nature of our new goal basically serves to insulate the US from political criticism. Because ensuring absence is a task already completed, it justifies the end date. Because it is a task never finally completed, it justifies the intensity of conflict.

Obama is too committed to his campaign promises to abandon them, and too committed to the next campaign to follow through on them. In this, Afghanistan doesn’t seem too much different from the norm.

M.L. January 28, 2011 at 7:40 am

But much more importantly, our strategy in Afghanistan is defined by absence. Does that make sense? How do you know when you’ve accomplished it? According to President Obama, we win if al Qaeda doesn’t build a safe haven in the country. This means the war is either already won, or it will never be won—al Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Afghanistan, or, alternatively, we must stay there forever to make sure it never has a safe haven in Afghanistan.

I believe the NATO (U.S.) strategy is to build Afghan forces so the NATO forces can go home as soon as the host nation can do the “deny safe haven” effectively.

Not that I agree with this strategy, mind you, but the argument you present does not match reality of the strategy.

Joshua Foust January 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

ML, the ANSF buildout is a secondary objective, because it is assumed to be a prerequisite to deny al Qaeda access to Afghanistan. If al Qaeda weren’t nearby, we wouldn’t care about the Afghan forces. The strategy remains laser-focused on “denying sanctuary.”

M.L. January 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Joshua,

Looking at the strategy through the Ends-Ways-Means prism, I’d agree with you that the stated strategic end state is the denial of sanctuary. However, your post suggests that the only available way to do that is to “stay there forever.” In fact, staying there forever is not necessary to deny sanctuary if you build host nation security forces to do it for you, or so the NATO strategy suggests.

The true strategic questions then become, How long will it take? How many will it take? Can they sustain themselves? Will they truly be capable and/or willing to fight al Qaeda?

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