- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
President Obama’s decision on the Afghan withdrawal was classic Obama. He split the difference between two coherent positions — 1) withdraw as little as possible to maximize the chance of success versus 2) withdraw as much as possible to maximize political gain — and came up with a middle-of-the-road muddle. It’s clear that Obama and his advisors approach these decisions as politicians, not strategists.
But even then, the decision didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The biggest political risk Obama faces is losing Afghanistan just in time for next year’s election: I see no good reason not to keep as many forces in country as possible, just for self-interested political reasons, let alone what’s best for U.S. security. Peter Feaver and Max Boot, among others, have had insightful analyses of the decision and its tangled rationales.
Generally, Obama’s speech was of a piece with his Afghanistan policy as a whole: It could have been a lot worse, but he certainly missed easy opportunities to make it better. He was right to emphasize that "In part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made," a point that most of official Washington seems to disbelieve. Obama was right to link the Afghanistan war with prospects for stability in Pakistan. But he failed to make a strong case, or even show much abiding concern, for why the United States should remain committed to stability in South Asia. He continues in his mistaken approach of viewing South Asia exclusively through a counterterrorism lens, when much more is at stake.
UPDATE: In my last post I reviewed the Republican presidential candidates’ positions on Afghanistan. Here is a good summary of most of the candidates’ reactions to the speech, which tracks pretty well with my last post. Pawlenty has clarified his position, which is that we should minimize the withdrawal and heed Petraeus’s advice. Bachmann, whose statement is available in a Weekly Standard brief interview, concurred: "We’ve got to stay the course, and we’ve got to finish the job … we are making great progress … I do trust General Petraeus." Not bad, though I’d like to see some acknowledgment of the major difficulties with the Afghan government, the attendant failures of our civilian assistance effort, and the need for a tougher line with Kabul. Bachmann and Pawlenty give the impression that they believe our recent successes, which are indeed real and significant, are also unqualified, across the board, and robust. They are not (yet).
On a related note, our friends over at the Compass have a great piece on Jon Hunstman’s foreign policy.