Small Wars

This Week at War: What Will Obama’s Afghanistan Look Like?

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JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Obama hasn’t told us how this ends

During his Dec. 1 speech on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from the country in July 2011. What condition does he expect Afghanistan to be in at that time? Or in 2012, when he will presumably be campaigning for a second term? U.S. officials seem to anticipate a chaotic backdrop to the pullout of U.S. forces. Indeed, parts of Obama’s plan promote improvised — and likely messy — governance solutions in Afghanistan. In 2012, Obama may find it difficult to explain why Afghan chaos should be considered a policy success.

Obama’s speech, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s testimony the next day to the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered only a vague description of the future they expect. Obama discussed "handing over responsibility to Afghan forces" and providing support for "Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people." Gates made clear that, "This approach is not open-ended ‘nation building.’ It is neither necessary nor feasible to create a modern, centralized, Western-style Afghan nation-state — the likes of which has never been seen in that country." Gates also recommended "achieving a better balance between national and local forces" and "engaging communities to enlist more local security forces to protect their own territory."

Based on Obama’s and Gates’s remarks it appears that the U.S. government is giving up on the goal of building a strong central government in Kabul. Obama seems to be encouraging U.S. officials to bypass President Hamid Karzai and his circle, along with those ministries in Kabul that U.S. officials deem to be corrupt or ineffective, when they find other leaders in Afghanistan who can do a better job delivering for the Afghan people and for U.S. interests. Under this vision, U.S. officials will empower an opportunistic mix of tribal, local, provincial, and some central government actors to provide for Afghan governance and security.

It is not hard to see why the United States wants to shift to this approach. U.S. officials are barely on speaking terms with Karzai and much of his government. Top Afghan officials have used their positions to divert international assistance to their bank accounts and to their friends. Worst of all for U.S. troops in the field, Afghan government officials, senior military leaders, and local officials appointed by the Karzai government have in many cases achieved their positions due to their connections and not based on merit, competence, or integrity. In many cases this has left U.S. soldiers with poor partners to work with.

The resulting political mosaic  will be messy and contentious. Karzai, ostensibly Afghanistan’s head of government, will not take kindly to the Americans bypassing and undermining his authority. He will respond by being even more assertive in protecting his interests and diverging even farther from U.S. objectives. In addition, U.S. officials should expect the local leaders they support to squabble with each other and with Kabul.

By 2012 Afghanistan’s development and governance will be even messier. Against this backdrop, Obama will have to explain why his policy, with its dramatic up-and-down shifts in U.S. troop levels, is helping the situation in the region. Obama will not be able to cancel the troop withdrawals scheduled for July 2011; that date is still early enough in the U.S. campaign calendar for an anti-war candidate to enter the race if he were to renege. Much of the U.S. electorate will feel some relief that the United States is getting out of still-chaotic Afghanistan. But for many that relief will be offset by fear of what is to come and by questions about Obama’s national security judgment.

Does he foresee any problems reassuring the American electorate that all is going well in Afghanistan in 2012? With his new policy, Obama is attempting mighty political feats both in Afghanistan and at home.

Will the QDR be DOA?

In his speech this week, Obama made it clear that the United States would complete its long-planned pull out from Iraq. And as discussed above, Obama laid out a plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan. Obama, and many Americans for that matter, seem eager to put these wars behind them.

Not so fast, says Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Iraq and Afghanistan will be front and center in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Pentagon’s periodic appraisal of its long-term strategy. In a Dec. 2 speech , Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn described the marching orders he received from Gates (as reported by the American Forces Press Service):

Unlike previous QDRs, the current review puts the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq front and center, Lynn said.

"Secretary Gates has made clear that the conflicts we’re in should be at the very forefront of our agenda," and set the priorities, Lynn told the executives. "He wants to make sure we’re not giving up capabilities needed now for those needed for some unknown future conflict. He wants to make sure the Pentagon is truly on war footing."

Will U.S. defense planners be guilty of "preparing for the last war"? With Obama intending America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end during the period of the upcoming QDR, and with no visible appetite for another such campaign, should the U.S. military’s experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan still be "front and center" in the Pentagon’s long-range strategy document?

We will have to await the arrival of the QDR before passing judgment. According to the press report cited above, Lynn said that issues such as cyberthreats, anti-satellite technologies, and high-end hybrid threats will also be a focus of the study. In addition, Lynn described how the Defense Department plans to integrate its efforts with civilian aspects of national power found in the State Department and elsewhere.

What role should the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan play in future defense planning? With more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq and 100,000 slated for Afghanistan, these campaigns and their lessons should not be ignored. Yet there is also a long list of security challenges that are unrelated to al Qaeda’s terrorism or modern insurgencies. Better to put a focus on these before they become big problems later.

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