Obama's Afghan Plan Refuses to Embrace Victory

Introduction: The President's Plan

The Central Asian front in what was until recently known as the global war on terror has been visibly deteriorating for some time now. This is in large part a result of neglect by a U.S. government focused on Iraq, and a result of a network of allies (both of permanence and of convenience) who have been inconsistent at best in demonstrating their commitment to aiding the fight to rid that region of terrorists and hard-line militants.

This spring, after nearly two years of campaigning on a platform of withdrawal from Iraq and a refocusing of American efforts on that deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan (an area Democrats spent the majority of the Bush years referring to as the location of “the real war on terror”), President Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s Afghan strategy. That strategy is currently being implemented in the region.

President Obama’s opacity about his goals for the Afghan region and his failure to date to provide promised (and long-awaited) metrics by which he will measure success make evaluating his strategy difficult. At a March press conference, Obama said his administration intended “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

However, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, had at least put forth a rudimentary concept of what success in Iraq -- his focus in the GWOT -- would look like (a nation that is “at peace with its neighbors, with a representative government that respects the rights of all Iraqis, and security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven to terrorists”), Obama has repeatedly stopped short of defining success or victory as he sees it in his favored area of the war on terror. He even declared in a late July television interview that he dislikes the word “victory” and doesn’t see that as America’s goal in the region.

The Obama Afghan strategy can be summed up in five points of emphasis.

  • Implementing an Iraq-style "surge" of forces in Afghanistan, to be augmented with a so-called “civilian surge” made up of experts in law, agriculture, and other needed specialties;
  • Growing the Afghan Security Forces, both police and army, by such numbers and with such speed that they will be able to assume responsibility securing large portions of the country in a very short time;
  • Attempting to achieve “reconciliation” with less hard-line members of the Taliban and promoting a more open, honest, and effective Afghan national government;
  • Expanding international support for the Afghan mission, a task which includes convincing NATO allies to send more troops to the region to participate in counterterror and nation-building activities, as well as convening regional stakeholders for the purpose of formulating a longer-term strategy for the region and agreeing on an acceptable outcome; and
  • Eliminating the growing Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan, while simultaneously promoting democratic order within that fractured, historically unstable Islamic state.

Regardless of the Obama strategy’s likelihood of success -- which is difficult to predict, given his unwillingness to define “success” or to seek “victory” -- those closely watching the Central Asian front in this conflict should not be surprised if circumstances there begin to worsen in the near term. Even General David Petraeus, commanding general of U.S. Central Command, has acknowledged that the situation in the Afghan theater is “likely to get worse before it gets better.”

Petraeus, who is best known for having snatched success from the jaws of a similarly dire situation in Iraq, is no stranger to such words of warning. As he ramped up the coalition’s efforts in Iraq in early 2007, Petraeus cautioned legislators, members of the Bush administration, and the American public to be prepared for more pitched combat and higher casualty rates within that country as a result of the "surge" in forces and change in strategy he brought to that Middle Eastern war zone.

Now, as the focus shifts eastward, Petraeus is warning those willing to listen not to expect as astonishingly quick or complete turnaround in Afghanistan as the coalition forces under his command achieved in Iraq. This is due, in part, to the vast differences in terrain (both geographic and human), and because the former lacks both the infrastructure and the willingness to accept a sizable and sustained presence of foreign troops that helped make a rapid turnaround in Iraq possible.

Whether or not the situation in Afghanistan will improve after an initial increase in violence and decrease in security will depend on the Obama strategy itself, its authors’ willingness to remain faithful to it in the face of potential frustration, and, of course, its execution by the forces on the ground responsible for putting the administration’s plan into action.

Unfortunately, as the upcoming installments on this topic will demonstrate, Obama’s strategy for the Afghan/Pakistani front in this conflict and his unwillingness to embrace victory as an outcome reflect a lack of understanding about (or, worse, an overall unwillingness to accept) the facts on the ground in the region, the significance of America’s fight there, and the high cost of failure.