Obama's Afghanistan Surprise
Many who voted for him have cheered Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq, but they may be dismayed to learn just how long and deep a commitment he’s considering for Afghanistan.
The recent US missile attacks on Taliban compounds in North and South Waziristan, which killed some 11 foreign fighters and at least 13 Pakistani villagers, are the latest in a series of similar operations since last summer that have laid bare the incoherence of current US military strategy in Afghanistan.
There is little evidence, former US military officers say, that the cross-border operations into Pakistan, like the US helicopter raid into Syria on October 26, were part of any cohesive US strategic mission. Indeed, the mounting collateral damage in civilian lives and angry regional governments is viewed by these former officers as contrary to the military and diplomatic interests of the United States—and can only complicate the tasks ahead in the region for Barack Obama.
“Until we have a defined strategic end state, it’s very hard to come up with the intermediate objectives,” said Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain and fellow at Washington’s Center for a New American Security. “What are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan?”
The danger is that Petraeus’s full-blown, can-do, war-fighting doctrine will so dazzle the usually cautious but change-minded new president that Afghanistan policy could well turn into a “Yes, we can!” trap.
On January 20, President-elect Obama, who has long identified Afghanistan, not Iraq, as the real front in the US war on terrorism, will inherit a deteriorating military situation and daunting obstacles in his efforts to transfer US military resources to Afghanistan. Obama already has helped shape a consensus that the strategic objective of the 60,000-strong American-led coalition in Afghanistan should be to take the battle to resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, and to deny them bases and training camps in the remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But there is little agreement within the national security community about how expansive such a military campaign should be, how closely it should be allied to the political fortunes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and whether Pakistan’s army can be trusted to clean out terrorist camps in the remote border tribal agencies.
The president-elect has agreed to the requests of US commanders in Afghanistan to increase US forces by two or three combat brigades—or 10,000 to 15,000 troops, in addition to another brigade already approved by President Bush. Beyond that, the debate about the proper US strategic mission for a renewed Afghanistan war is all over the map, presenting a broad array of options for President Obama.
Rory Stewart, the author of the best seller The Places In Between about Afghanistan and soon-to-be director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School, rejects both the troop increases and the idea that the success of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq can be duplicated in Afghanistan. Stewart, a former British infantry officer, would limit US involvement to carefully targeted economic development aid, and dismisses a counterinsurgency strategy as unrealistic and overly ambitious. He recommends that the US pursue a containment strategy and a narrowly counterterrorist military campaign.
At the other end of the spectrum, former US military officers, some now acting as civilian trainers for Afghan troops, are bullish about adapting a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. While mindful of the importance of covert counterterrorist tactics and quiet regional diplomacy, these officers advocate a full-scale commitment to nation-building. Their concerns are rural electrification, road building, the shaky legitimacy of the Karzai government, endemic corruption, and even eradication of Afghanistan’s prime cash cow, the heroin trade. Their byword is “the best weapons don’t shoot.”
General David Petraeus, who last month became chief of Central Command, in charge of US forces in the region, is keenly aware of the problems Afghanistan presents to military strategists. In October, he appointed a special Joint Strategic Assessment Team, headed by the Army’s top counterinsurgency expert, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, to come up with a plan to present to Obama shortly after the inauguration.
Petraeus is not pulling his punches. He has signaled that the US “effort in Afghanistan is going to be the longest campaign of the long war.” He also declared that he believes an Iraq-style military strategy—in which troops live among and protect civilians, identify and destroy terrorist networks, and seek reconciliation with moderate insurgents—could work in Afghanistan. Petraeus concedes building up Afghanistan’s security forces to do the job will take time, money, and a long-term US commitment. “...You cannot kill or capture your way out of an insurgency,” he says.
The general’s immediate military priorities, military sources speculate, will be to deploy enough US troops to reestablish security for the Afghan people, and enough US advisers to train some 350,000 Afghan troops and police and enable them to mount the kind of counterinsurgency operations that made the Iraq “surge” effective. US strategists would like to nearly quadruple the size of the Afghan army, which now numbers 58,000.
General Petraeus has a considerable professional stake in pushing the newly refined US counterinsurgency doctrine, which he and his brain trust resurrected from the ashes of Vietnam in 2006. For now, the general is credited with turning around Iraq, and is routinely compared by admirers to General Matthew Ridgeway in Korea. Given the speed with which the tenets of “full-spectrum” counterinsurgency have swept the officer corps, Petraeus is presenting the new president with a military strategy that already has a momentum of its own with commanders on the ground and at the Pentagon.
Obama made it very clear to Petraeus last summer in Iraq that he would hear out the general’s military proposals, then weigh the national interest and make his own decisions. A vocal faction among US officers is worried Petraeus’s counterinsurgency juggernaut has moved too fast, without proven results or sufficient debate. Petraeus himself readily admits the security produced by the surge in Iraq is “not irreversible,” a cautionary note that applies as well to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan will be among the first major tests of Obama’s presidency. The danger is that Petraeus’s full-blown, can-do, war-fighting doctrine—which promises to enhance the utility of American armed forces over the next half-century—will so dazzle the usually cautious but change-minded new president that Afghanistan policy could well turn into a “Yes, we can!” trap, guaranteeing an outsize American military footprint and financial commitment, with potentially disastrous consequences, as the Russians are only the most recent to attest.
Russ Hoyle is the author of Going to War (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2008), a detailed account of the18-month run-up to the Iraq war. He is a former senior editor at the New York Daily News, Time, and The New Republic. Hoyle is at work on a new book about counterinsurgency and the U.S. military.