Belmont Club

Plan B

The Washington Post describes a change of strategy in mid-campaign. “Obama’s public remarks on Afghanistan indicate that he has begun to rethink the counterinsurgency strategy he set in motion six months ago, even as his generals have embraced it”. There are two issues in this respect worth considering. The first is whether the initial strategy the President “set in motion six months ago” was flawed to start with; the second is whether any of the new strategies he is considering will fare any better. After all, if the President was wrong once, he can be wrong twice, assuming he was wrong the first time. The Post wrote:


Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s grim assessment of the Afghanistan war has opened a divide between the military, which is pushing for an early decision to send more troops, and civilian policymakers who are increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort.

Senior military officials emphasized Monday that McChrystal’s conclusion that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure” without an urgent infusion of troops has been endorsed by the uniformed leadership. That includes Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and architect of the troop “surge” strategy widely seen as helping U.S. forces turn the corner in Iraq.

But before any decision is made, some of President Obama’s civilian advisers have proposed looking at other, less costly options to address his primary goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself in Afghanistan. Those options include a redirection of U.S. efforts — away from protecting the Afghan population and building the Afghan state and toward persuading the Taliban to stop fighting — as well as an escalation of targeted attacks against al-Qaeda itself in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Obama’s public remarks on Afghanistan indicate that he has begun to rethink the counterinsurgency strategy he set in motion six months ago, even as his generals have embraced it. The equation on the ground has changed markedly since his March announcement, with attacks by Taliban fighters showing greater sophistication, U.S. casualties rising, and the chances increasing that Afghanistan will be left with an illegitimate government after widespread fraud in recent presidential elections.


But was the initial strategy flawed?

Readers who have followed the Belmont Club will recall that two problems have haunted the Afghan strategy from the first: logistics and the Pakistani sanctuary. Afghanistan is landlocked and is surrounded almost entirely by less than friendly country. The one “ally” bordering it is Pakistan.  The NATO forces are supplied largely through Pakistani ports. One way to describe the Obama strategy is to say it consisted of three “mores”: 1) more troops; 2) more diplomacy; 3) more nation-building and aid. Obama’s new strategy, at least from the Washington Post article quoted above probably consists of either fewer or the same number of troops,  more diplomacy — negotiations with the Taliban — and more strikes in Pakistan. Let’s see how President Obama’s initial strategy intended to address these problems. Here are verbatim quotes from the President’s strategy speech quoted by the Council for Foreign Relations in March 2009.

“Good morning. Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. … To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan – which is why I’ve appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to serve as Special Representative for both countries, and to work closely with General David Petraeus to integrate our civilian and military efforts.  …

Let me start by addressing the way forward in Pakistan … I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years – resources that will build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan’s democracy. I’m also calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Maria Cantwell, Chris Van Hollen and Peter Hoekstra that creates opportunity zones in the border region to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued by violence. And we will ask our friends and allies to do their part – including at the donors conference in Tokyo next month. … That is why we will launch a standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan.   For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. Those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq. Now, that will change. The additional troops that we deployed have already increased our training capacity. …

To advance security, opportunity, and justice – not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces – we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs. That is why I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. And that is why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations – an effort that Secretary Clinton will carry forward next week in the Hague.  …

There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans – including women and girls. …

From our partners and NATO allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan Security Forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people. For the United Nations, we seek greater progress for its mandate to coordinate international action and assistance, and to strengthen Afghan institutions.  And finally, together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region – our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.


But by July, Bob Woodward was reporting trouble brewing in the policy councils. Basically the generals wanted more troops and more Afghan force generation. Even then the President had already made up his mind. The President’s carried the message: more economic development.

National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders here last week that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict. The message seems designed to cap expectations that more troops might be coming, though the administration has not ruled out additional deployments in the future. Jones was carrying out directions from President Obama, who said recently, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops. This will not be won by the military alone,” Jones said in an interview during his trip. “We tried that for six years.” He also said: “The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed.”

The question of the force level for Afghanistan, however, is not settled and will probably be hotly debated over the next year. One senior military officer said privately that the United States would have to deploy a force of more than 100,000 to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.

“We don’t need more U.S. forces,” [Marine General] Nicholson finally told Jones. “We need more Afghan forces.” It is a complaint Jones heard repeatedly. Jones and other officials said Afghanistan, and particularly its president, Hamid Karzai, have not mobilized sufficiently for their own war. Karzai has said Afghanistan is making a major effort in the war and is increasing its own forces as fast as possible In an interview, Nicholson said that in the six months he has been building Camp Leatherneck and brought 9,000 Marines to the base, not a single additional member of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) has been assigned to assist him. He said he needed “Afghanistan security forces — all flavors,” including soldiers, police, border patrol and other specialists


Re-reading the President’s March speech, one notices no mention of fears of an illegitimate election.  Similarly, the “opportunity zones” and grand diplomatic maneuvers, the dispatch of Secretary Clinton to the Hague and the efforts of Richard Holdbrooke, so grandly announced on that occasion, have disappeared with nary a whimper. Despite the promise to provide resources for training, the Marines can find “not a single additional member” of the ANA assigned to them. And the Taliban whose ranks were doomed to “dwindle” are now suddenly Obama’s new partners for peace. Something has gone wrong, and perhaps it isn’t just the lack of 32,000 more troops. There can be no question that if the current strategy has failed, some gear within Barack Obama’s “comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” has jumped the tracks. But what exactly? The answer to this question is crucial.  Obama’s strategy stood on three legs: military, diplomatic and political. Which of these has failed? That question is especially relevant to evaluating the new strategies he is now considering. You can jump from the frying pan into the fire.

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