Obama’s Overview of Afghanistan War Is Unclear and Confused

The Obama administration’s new report on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan leaves our objectives and goals even more obscure than before, says Stephen Carter. If the president is serious about victory then he needs to tell us what that means.

The Obama administration’s new report on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan leaves our objectives and goals even more obscure than before, says Stephen Carter. If the president is serious about victory then he needs to tell us what that means. His new book, The Violence of Peace, is out next month.

The Obama Administration’s release of its awkwardly titled “ Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review” actually leaves us with less information about the goals and plans for the Afghan War than we had before.


The Overview is a summary of a longer classified document (unavailable until WikiLeaks or the Washington Post releases it). Early criticisms assert that the Overview’s scenario is far too rosy, or that it omits too many details—such as the Administration’s growing commitment to the drone war. Others note that although the summary talks a lot about achieving the conditions that will allow the United States to begin drawing down its forces by next July, as the President has promised, the document nowhere specifies how many troops might be withdrawn, and explicitly leaves open the possibility that the American-led coalition will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Perhaps these are fair criticisms, but I would like to come at the Overview a different way. President Obama, in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Address last December, invited us to use the principles of the just war tradition to evaluate America’s use of force. The just war tradition, derived from Catholic natural law thinking and popularized in the West by the philosopher Michael Walzer and the theologian Paul Ramsey, provides a framework for understanding when it is morally permissible for a nation to just violent force to achieve its objectives.

The first and foremost requirement of a just war is of course that it must be fought for a just cause. President Obama has more than once described Afghanistan as a “ war of necessity”—a war, as he said in the Nobel Address, “that America did not seek.” His point is that the Afghan War is an act of self-defense, forced upon the United States by al-Qaeda and its protectors, the Taliban.

Although reasonable minds may differ on the proposition that the war in Afghanistan is one of necessity rather than choice, let us take the point as true. But merely stating that the war is being fought in self-defense does not quite tell us whether the cause is just. As I tell my students when I teach the theory of just and unjust wars, a just war must, at minimum, be fought for a clearly articulated goal. “Self-defense,” in and of itself, is too broad.

So, why are we in Afghanistan? And what, exactly, would count as winning the war? Obama is now at the end of his second year as President. American forces have been in Afghanistan for nine years. And, even now, the precise purpose of the war remains difficult to articulate. True, war is a complex phenomenon, tough to summarize, and thus too often reduced, in both news reporting and blogging, to the size of a cartoon; or a bumper sticker. But the Overview is the Administration’s own detailed account of the progress of the war. One would hope, therefore, to discover precisely what this war of necessity is actually about.

The answer is obvious, right? Well, let’s see. The summary begins with the following powerful justification for the war:

He should not do what is necessary to withdraw so that he can say we won; he should do what is necessary to win so that we can withdraw.

“The core goal of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country.”

Agree or disagree, the goal at least is clear. Right? Well ... maybe not so much. Because, just a few paragraphs later, we find this: “[O]ur strategy in Afghanistan is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011.”

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Now, to be sure, a “strategy” is not necessarily the same as a “core goal.” A strategy may well be a way of reaching a goal. (“Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. Our strategy is to begin by signing a great quarterback.”) But then the Overview has things the wrong way around. It cannot be the case that the reduction of American forces is a strategy for reaching the goal of defeating al Qaeda.

But, never mind. Perhaps we are quibbling at semantics. Actually, it turns out that in addition to a “core goal” and a “strategy,” we also have “objectives”: “The U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are to deny safe haven to al-Qa’ida and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.”

Presumably, since keeping the Taliban out of power was not the “core goal” with which the Overview begins, this “objective” is meant in a narrower sense, as a means of reaching the goal. Thus we might say that keeping the Taliban out of power and dismantling al Qaeda are our war aims. Fair enough. Are we close to achieving them—that is, to winning the war? Would we even know if we won?

Here, history is an uncertain guide. Nobody surrenders any more. That practice went out in World War II. So, today, how do we judge whether our side is victorious? One classic work on war offers the following answer: “Victory comes when the enemy’s will to fight is broken by a specific defeat. The whole point of strategy is to figure out what that defeat would be and inflict it.”

In Afghanistan, alas, we do not yet know when (or whether) the other side’s will is likely to break. The America-led coalition has won the major battles, as American-led coalitions generally do. None has broken the other side’s will to resist. So victory, in the sense of achieving the Administration’s goals, may yet lie far in the future. Perhaps that is why the Overview includes near the end the following kicker: “As President Obama emphasized in 2010, our civilian and military efforts must support a durable and favorable political resolution of the conflict. In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, to include Afghan-led reconciliation, taking advantage of the momentum created by the recent security gains and the international consensus gained in Lisbon.”

This sounds rather wishful, given the record of diplomacy in the region over the past decade. Still, there is more: “As we shift to transition, a major challenge will be demonstrating that the Afghan government has the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas that have been cleared by ISAF and Afghan Security Forces.”

By “transition” it is meant the withdrawal of American forces. The puzzle is how the two clauses of the sentence fit together: is the report suggesting that the United States will not withdraw unless the Afghan government has developed the described capacity? That is what the Overview’s critics seem to think. And they don’t like it—perhaps because it hints at the possibility that the President plans to stay in Afghanistan until the war is won.

Many realists today consider victory an unsophisticated goal. Wars are not won or lost, but only pursued—and, following their pursuit, the ensuing peace (defined merely as a state of not-war) is managed. If this is what the President has in mind, he should say so. If instead he thinks the war can be won, he should tell us, clearly, what counts as victory, and how we will know when we get there. Because, if the President believes that the war is justified and worth winning, then his announced strategy is inside out. He should not do what is necessary to withdraw so that he can say we won; he should do what is necessary to win so that we can withdraw.

This may seem a great deal to ask of a man elected as what might be called the peace candidate. But although history has given us many a peace candidate (some of them, contrary to popular myth, victorious in the electoral campaign), it has given us no true peace Presidents. The closest was James Buchanan, who sought to stave off the looming Civil War through an intensive program of doing nothing whatsoever. Abraham Lincoln inherited Buchanan’s mess, then prosecuted the ensuing war of necessity with an unflinching fury.

Fury is not the word that comes to mind when considering President Obama’s prosecution of the Afghan War that he inherited, and that is a good thing. Obama has proved more cold-eyed on the war than many partisans on both sides of the aisle probably expected. He was right, in the Overview, to leave himself plenty of wiggle room rather than committing to his own stated deadline. Letting the other side know in advance when you will quit fighting is not exactly a winning strategy. Still, if President Obama still believes the Afghan War to be one of necessity, he needs to tell us exactly what it is that is necessary to do—and how we will know when we have done it.

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. His seven nonfiction books include God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. His twelfth book, The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama, will be published by Beast Books in January.