Shadow Government

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

Time for an Afghan Study Group?

Amidst all of the (mostly pessimistic) reporting on Afghanistan, one squib caught my eye: Congressman Frank Wolf has sent a letter to President Obama calling for the establishment of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group. The proposal is self-consciously modeled on the Iraq Study Group (ISG, aka the Baker-Hamilton Commission), which Congressman Wolf also helped launch. Wolf’s ...

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Amidst all of the (mostly pessimistic) reporting on Afghanistan, one squib caught my eye: Congressman Frank Wolf has sent a letter to President Obama calling for the establishment of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group. The proposal is self-consciously modeled on the Iraq Study Group (ISG, aka the Baker-Hamilton Commission), which Congressman Wolf also helped launch.

Wolf's new letter has not generated a lot of DC buzz yet, but I would not be surprised if it gathered steam this fall when Congress returns from recess. Whether it makes sense to launch such an independent group is a separate matter, and in assessing that question it would be helpful to clear up some myths about the Iraq Study Group.

Amidst all of the (mostly pessimistic) reporting on Afghanistan, one squib caught my eye: Congressman Frank Wolf has sent a letter to President Obama calling for the establishment of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group. The proposal is self-consciously modeled on the Iraq Study Group (ISG, aka the Baker-Hamilton Commission), which Congressman Wolf also helped launch.

Wolf’s new letter has not generated a lot of DC buzz yet, but I would not be surprised if it gathered steam this fall when Congress returns from recess. Whether it makes sense to launch such an independent group is a separate matter, and in assessing that question it would be helpful to clear up some myths about the Iraq Study Group.

Wolf initially proposed the Iraq Study Group back in the summer of 2005, at a time of eroding public support for the Iraq mission amidst vigorous elite debate about whether President Bush had a viable strategy or was simply “staying the course” in Iraq. Critics would complain loudly about what the Bush administration was doing — but then recommend back to the administration a course of action basically identical to the one already being pursued (I called this “bushwhacking” in a chapter I wrote on the politics of the war on terror in Lessons for a Long War, a book edited by Tom Donnelly and Fred Kagan). Critics who visited Iraq and heard General George Casey explain the military effort (called the “Casey Campaign Plan”) and heard U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad explain the broader political strategy tended to come back more encouraged than when they went.

President Bush sought to make the same points in public messaging, but his ability to persuade skeptics was considerably hurt by the lingering damage of partisan attacks from the 2004 campaign and growing frustration over the intelligence failures associated with the Iraqi WMD issue.

Congressman Wolf’s idea was to form a bipartisan panel of unimpeachable American leaders who would visit Iraq, review the situation, and report back on what was working and what was not working. The expectation was that they would primarily find things tough-but-workable, validating the existing strategy, and buying some time for it to work. Their report would be far more credible with the American people than anything President Bush could say.

This vision helps to explain the make-up of the panel, which included a number of distinguished Americans who would fit this role, but who would not necessarily be the ones you would task with crafting a whole new military strategy to rescue a failing war: Bill Clinton’s close confidante, Vernon Jordan; Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese; former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta; former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. Of course, there were also some distinguished leaders with direct national security expertise — the chairs, former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, as well as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, and former Senator Chuck Robb. But the overall composition of the ISG seemed as much tilted in the direction of “respected Americans who can speak candidly to the public” as “national security experts whom you would task to develop an alternative strategy.”

Yet the ISG took so long in forming that by the time it launched in mid-March 2006, the Iraq situation had deteriorated sharply. The ISG itself became so large (the fact sheet claims at least 44 expert advisors), and took so long in reporting that it was finished nearly a year and a half after it was initially proposed. By that time, the group had quite clearly adopted an expanded mission, one of charting what it called “a new approach because we believe there is a better way forward.”

That was how the press greeted the ISG when it released its report in mid-December 2006. But when I looked at the report at the time, I found four discrete elements to its proposed “new way forward.” First, and most directly related to Iraq strategy, the report essentially recommended that we do precisely what General Casey was proposing to do, namely accelerate the train-and-transition strategy in Iraq; in other words, while it labeled it as something different, the ISG recommended that we stay our present strategic course. Second, the report recommended all sorts of tactical tweaks to our implementation, almost all of which the Bush administration was already trying to do or had already asked Congress to do. Third, the report stapled onto this Iraq-centric program Secretary Baker’s larger vision for a re-launched regional peace initiative focused on Israeli relations with Palestine and with Syria. Fourth, the report included (on page 50), a key sentence: “We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”

To Bush administration insiders, the first element seemed overtaken by events; by mid-December, we had concluded that our current strategy was not working, so having it recommended back to us, even if pitched as a bold new course of action, seemed unwise. The second element was indeed welcome, but predictably that part of the report got almost no attention whatsoever. The third element did get a lot of attention, but it seemed a total distraction — whether or not it made sense to launch a Middle East peace initiative was worth debating on its own merits, but it was at best of secondary relevance to salvaging the dire situation in Iraq. The fourth element, the brief reference to a surge option, is what the Bush administration embraced because, of course, that is where the president finally landed. But despite pointing that sentence out to every reporter we could, most people saw President Bush’s surge decision as a rejection of the Iraq Study Group Report.

How might President Obama and his team react to an Afghan-Pakistan Study Group? President Obama welcomed the ISG Report when it reported out in December 2006 and saw it as roughly compatible with his own proposal to leave Iraq entirely by the summer of 2008. Of course, then-Senator Obama (and then-Senator Biden) were staunch opponents of the Iraq surge, declared it failed-on-launching, and worked to block it during 2007.

Perhaps more to the point, Karl Eikenberry, Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, proposed something like a new ISG in a cable that was leaked during Obama’s fall 2009 internal strategy review. To be sure, Eikenberry wrote that the group should not become “a months-long Baker-Hamilton-style commission” but should instead be “a panel of civilian and military experts to examine the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and the full range of options. It could include eminent, bipartisan political figures, such as former senior U.S. government and congressional leaders.” In short, another “Baker-Hamilton-style” commission.

Eikenberry’s proposal fell flat for understandable reasons, and the fact that Senator Obama was happy to see an independent commiss
ion criticize President Bush may not mean that President Obama would like to see a similar commission established so it could criticize him.

However, public doubts about Afghanistan are growing and with President Obama’s team conducting its own review in December, I could well imagine that an independent commission might gain traction. If so, this could greatly complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to control its own destiny in Afghanistan.

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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