This Week at War: Obama’s Nixonian Withdrawal Strategy

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

569014_nixon_02.jpg
569014_nixon_02.jpg
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 1: VIETNAM WAR-25TH ANNIVERSARY: Picture dated 30 April 1970 of Republican president Richard Nixon announcing during a press conference the entry of American soldiers in Cambodia. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972 but had to resign in August 1974 after the Watergate scandal. (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama hopes that good Afghan policy will mean good U.S. politics

A month ago, the Obama administration's relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were broken, with the insulted Afghan president threatening to join the Taliban. Today, early April seems like a lifetime ago. In a White House meeting this week that was almost canceled in April, U.S. President Barack Obama decisively allied himself with Karzai.

During his news conference with Karzai, Obama reaffirmed his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011. Obama undoubtedly wants to run for re-election in 2012 with the message that he wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may be using Richard Nixon's first term as a model. Nixon reduced the U.S. head count in Vietnam from more than 500,000 to just a few thousand by election day in 1972. That wind down of the war, combined with an economic rebound and a weak opponent, resulted in a landslide re-election.

Obama hopes that good Afghan policy will mean good U.S. politics

A month ago, the Obama administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were broken, with the insulted Afghan president threatening to join the Taliban. Today, early April seems like a lifetime ago. In a White House meeting this week that was almost canceled in April, U.S. President Barack Obama decisively allied himself with Karzai.

During his news conference with Karzai, Obama reaffirmed his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011. Obama undoubtedly wants to run for re-election in 2012 with the message that he wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may be using Richard Nixon‘s first term as a model. Nixon reduced the U.S. head count in Vietnam from more than 500,000 to just a few thousand by election day in 1972. That wind down of the war, combined with an economic rebound and a weak opponent, resulted in a landslide re-election.

The dangers of Obama’s July 2011 withdrawal declaration are well known. The Taliban, with ample sanctuaries, can easily conserve their resources and adjust the tempo of their operations to extract maximum political effect. Once a U.S. withdrawal begins, it will become irreversible. Political events might even lead to its acceleration. The United States’ remaining coalition partners surely won’t dither on the tarmac. Another risk is that Afghanistan’s security forces will not be ready to accept heavy responsibility in 14 months.

Obama undoubtedly understands this. Doesn’t his policy of a quick U.S. withdrawal risk creating an even bigger mess, a debacle of his making that he would have to fix in his second term?

We have to assume that Obama and his advisors have thought this through. Obama’s statements indicate an intention to gradually transition from the current large-scale manpower-intensive counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign to a small-scale advisor-based security assistance program. In addition, they have likely concluded that the 2010 troop surge and its suppression of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s south further reduces the risk of transitioning from COIN to purely security assistance.

The best military strategy isn’t very good if it can’t maintain political support. A small security assistance program might be riskier than a well-staffed counterinsurgency campaign, but that comparison is irrelevant if the COIN campaign is no longer politically realistic. Seeing what happened to the political support for the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq on election day in 2006 and 2008, Obama apparently doesn’t want to take any political chances with his campaign in Afghanistan. Better to end it on his terms than risk having the electorate end it for him.

Some may see Obama’s withdrawal plan as a cynical move to get reelected in 2012. If it works, he will have to live with the consequences. Obama and his advisors have apparently concluded that a smaller advisor-based and open-ended security assistance program will keep Afghanistan from becoming a headache in his second term. If he gets re-elected, he will get a chance to experience that theory.

Is the Marine Corps just another army?

On May 7, during a discussion with students at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that he is interviewing candidates to replace Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who will retire this fall. Gates said he will expect the candidates to explain to him what in the future will make the Marine Corps unique and not just a second — and by implication, wastefully redundant — Army. "We will always have a Marine Corps," Gates said. "But the question is, how do you define the mission post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan? And that’s the intellectual effort that I think the next commandant has to undertake."

The Marine Corps has long sought to differentiate itself from the Army by specializing in amphibious operations — the ability to project military power from ship to shore. But during his talk to the students, Gates wondered whether large-scale amphibious landings would ever again be practical in the age of relatively cheap, numerous, and precise anti-ship missiles. If not, then what will make the Marine Corps unique?

Some analysts have already attempted to answer Gates’s questions. Many of these analysts have concluded that security assistance, with numerous small detachments of Marines providing training and support to allied military forces, will be a major mission in the future. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Novack, then a staff officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, described a plan for Marine Corps regiments to each specialize in a particular region of the world, learn its culture, and then deploy security assistance training teams to build partnerships and indigenous military capacity. Analysts at Rand Corp. called for the both the Marine Corps and the Army to permanently designate up to a third of their combat units for security assistance work. Echoing Lt. Col. Novack’s plan, Steven Metz and Frank Hoffman suggested assigning Latin America and the Pacific Rim to the Marine Corps and the rest of the world to the Army. Alternatively, Metz and Hoffman would have the Marine Corps be the Pentagon’s primary assault force, with the Army specializing in stabilization, security, and counterinsurgency.

By contrast, Dakota Wood, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thinks the Marine Corps can still perform offensive combat operations from its traditional naval platform. Wood believes Marine units deployed on Navy ships and equipped with air power and landing craft will be useful for counterterrorism raiding and for direct action against nonstate adversaires. Against nation-state adversaries, Wood concludes that Marine Corps operations against adversary shipping lanes are feasible. However, Wood thinks that the Navy and the Marine Corps need to adopt a more decentralized structure to be effective against the most capable opponents.

Gates’s candidates will no doubt explain why the Marines’ sea-based tradition will remain relevant into the future. But as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, that argument for what makes the Marine Corps different from the Army will not stop the Marines from jumping into any kind of land war. Even when far from the ocean and appearing to be just another army, the Marine Corps has its own particular way of doing things. That, more than sea-basing, is what makes the Marine Corps unique and a value to the country.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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