Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The good and the bad news on the prospects for Obama’s Afghanistan policy

By Peter Feaver The daily news clippings continue to tantalize with tidbits on the intersection between politics and national security. The tidbits fall into a variety of three baskets — good news, bad news, and ambivalent news — rather than accumulating only on one side of the ledger for President Obama and the prospects for ...

By Peter Feaver

The daily news clippings continue to tantalize with tidbits on the intersection between politics and national security. The tidbits fall into a variety of three baskets -- good news, bad news, and ambivalent news -- rather than accumulating only on one side of the ledger for President Obama and the prospects for his policy.

In the good news basket, I would put this op-ed from Senator Webb. At first glance, it is a strong cautionary note because it is full of tough skeptical questions for Obama's policy. It is clear that Webb dislikes the policy and in the op-ed he promises that in the coming weeks he will be kicking many rocks and will doubtless turn some of them over to expose a bit of awkwardness underneath. But I code it good news because of this closing paragraph:

By Peter Feaver

The daily news clippings continue to tantalize with tidbits on the intersection between politics and national security. The tidbits fall into a variety of three baskets — good news, bad news, and ambivalent news — rather than accumulating only on one side of the ledger for President Obama and the prospects for his policy.

In the good news basket, I would put this op-ed from Senator Webb. At first glance, it is a strong cautionary note because it is full of tough skeptical questions for Obama’s policy. It is clear that Webb dislikes the policy and in the op-ed he promises that in the coming weeks he will be kicking many rocks and will doubtless turn some of them over to expose a bit of awkwardness underneath. But I code it good news because of this closing paragraph:

On the personnel front, our active-duty military has been deployed repeatedly for combat operations since 2001. Guard and reserve components also have deployed at levels not envisioned when the all-volunteer force was introduced. We are in uncharted territory in terms of the long-term effects these deployments are having on the well-being of our men and women in uniform, especially the Army and Marine Corps. I introduced dwell-time legislation nearly three years ago to ensure that we achieved a better balance in deployment cycles with a minimum interval before follow-on deployments. The new commitment of some 30,000 U.S. troops will put additional strains on our forces and their families. I plan to press the administration on this point to ensure that we are more vigilant in safeguarding the welfare of our men and women in uniform.

Read the bolded parts carefully. Back in 2007, Webb was a key figure in the Democrats’ "slow bleed strategy" to hobble the Iraq surge by setting reasonable-sounding-but-in-design-and-practice-debilitating restrictions on the implementation of the surge strategy. It was a clever and deliberate plan to stop the surge and, if a few more Republicans had gone along with the scheme, it might have succeeded. In the last sentence, Webb explicitly stops well short of threatening to do the same to Obama. He will ask awkward questions, but he will not seek to hobble Obama the way he tried to hobble Bush. In other words, Webb is signaling what I believe will be the dominant approach of the anti-war faction in Congress: sound and fury but nothing tangible to block the Obama team from implementing the strategy. (As a postscript, I would add that just because President Obama channeled President Bush to produce his own surge does not mean that Republicans in Congress should channel their opposite number of a few years back to produce their own "strangle-the-policy-in-the-cradle" anti-surge. Those who urged Obama to give McChrystal what he asked for must line up in support of the president today, even if he dithered and tinkered with the request. The best thing Republicans in Congress can provide is a demonstration of how a responsible opposition party acts and that involves giving Obama’s surge time and support to succeed.) This is good news for Obama and means that his job of building the political support he needs to wage the war successfully is well within his means.

In the bad news basket, I would put this snippet from Joe Klein’s story on the Afghanistan decision:

But, you might reasonably ask, did the strategy review really have to take so long and be so public? Obama had no choice about the public part of the program; he is privately furious about the leaks, especially those from the military. "We will deal with that situation in time," an Obama adviser told me.  

If Klein’s reporting is accurate, this is an ominous sign that some Chicago politics payback is in the offing. Of course, every administration complains (rightly) about leaks. But this White House is unusually politicized (they describe their own White House team as a bunch of "campaign hacks"), and so while other White House’s complained about it, one gets the sense that this team means actually to do something about it (cue the plumbers?) Their target appears not to be the White House leakers but rather the military leakers. This is fully appropriate and consistent with civilian control. But it is a risky business to declare war on one’s own military in the midst of a larger war. The military is not without ammunition of its own. So far, the on-the-record statements by the senior brass could not be more helpful to or respectful of Obama and the new strategy. If the leak-plumbing turns into witch-hunting, the civil-military fall-out could be profound.  

Already, the left has edged a bit closer to the "General Betray-us" type of attacks on the military that characterized some of their opposition to the Iraq surge. How else to code the curious commentary that called the West Point venue "enemy territory" or that mocked Obama’s military advisors as petulant 12-year-olds?  It would not take much to fan these embers into a real civil-military fire.

And in the ambivalent basket, I would put this bit from the same Klein story:

Obama’s leadership of this process was the source of some amazement by those who participated in it. He was all business. Unlike Bill Clinton, he didn’t allow the conversations to ramble; unlike George W. Bush, he ran the meetings himself. He asked sharp, Socratic questions of everyone in the Situation Room. He would notice when an adviser wasn’t participating, even in an area that wasn’t his or her expertise, and ask, What do you think about this, Hillary? Or Bob, or Jim. He encouraged argument among those who disagreed — most notably General David Petraeus and Vice President Joe Biden. He was undaunted by the military. Indeed, the greatest cause of delay was Obama’s constant pressure on his commanders to justify every unit and find some way to speed the troops’ arrival. The final deployment includes only three combat brigades and one training brigade — about 20,000 troops — augmented by 10,000 enablers: medics, mechanics, intelligence analysts, strategic-communications (that is, propaganda) experts. (See pictures from a photographer’s personal journey through war.)

The real haggle was over speed of deployment. The military plans carefully, in five- to 10-year increments, and moves with the speed of a supertanker. A good part of the reason the troops were sent to Helmand instead of Kandahar, even though it violated the prevailing counterinsurgency strategy, was that the fortifications already had been built in Helmand; it seemed too late to turn the supertanker around. Obama kept sending plans back to the Pentagon, seeking a faster launch for his "extended surge." The military still isn’t entirely sure that it’ll be able to move 30,000 troops to Afghanistan by August. "We’ll push in every way possible to get the forces on the ground ASAP," a senior military official told me. But the President clearly believes that the speed and vehemence of the new offensive will be its greatest assets.

From a civil-military relations theory point of view, Obama is well within his rights to delve into operational details like this. The military may resent this as micro-management, but it is more legitimate than the conventional wisdom claims. It is, however, more of the risky business stuff — just ask Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. What Obama did (if Klein’s reporting is accurate) is precisely what Secretary Rumsfeld did: tinkering with the time-phased force and deployment data (TPFDD) that determines the sequence, flow, and pace by which troops and war material get into theater. This is among the most complex aspects of military operations, interweaving the constraints of logistics, OPSTEMPO, and PERSTEMPO.

Our most experienced Secretary of Defense in modern times, Donald Rumsfeld, found it fascinating but one could say that it became his own personal Waterloo. Lots of reporters got rich writing books consisting primarily of assembling assorted complaints about how Rumsfeld’s tinkering in general but especially with the TPFDD — shaving a unit here, delaying a unit there, making it lighter and faster — allegedly contributed to the problems coalition forces confronted in the unfolding in Iraq. And here we have news that the least experienced commander in chief in modern times has similarly dipped his toe in these same waters. Of course, President Obama has well-qualified expert advisors (as did Secretary Rumsfeld) and from this distant perch, and at this stage in the process, it is impossible to say whether the changes Obama wrought strengthened or weakened the plan. What is possible to say here and now is that Obama has irrevocably made Afghanistan his war — his war to win or to lose.  

Perhaps these three baskets will merge? Will Congress start investigating civilian micro-management of the war? Will we start to get retaliatory leaking about micro-management that proved dysfunctional? I hope not. But the national security team seems to have lost a bit of its no-drama-Obama quality and so I would not bet against it.   

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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