This Week at War: Obama vs. Team Surge

The president is going to regret putting off an inevitable showdown with Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus over Afghanistan.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A collision between Obama and the Afghan surge faction is inevitable

Of the many revelations in early previews of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars, the most corrosive is the obstinacy President Barack Obama faced from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and then Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. According to the Washington Post's reporting of the book, Obama repeatedly pressed his military advisors for an exit plan from Afghanistan. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars," Obama said. Yet according to the Post, Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus -- whom I will term the Afghan surge faction -- essentially barred from consideration any plan that did not involve a counterinsurgency strategy requiring at least 30,000 more U.S. troops. In spite of their resistance to his wishes, Obama chose not to confront the surge faction, opting instead to accommodate their policy inside a muddled compromise. But the compromise will only delay an inevitable clash.

Woodward's book strongly reinforces the impression that Obama's paramount goal in Afghanistan is to find the exit. Gates, Petraeus, and others have attempted to dilute the harmful effect of Obama's July 2011 deadline by explaining that any U.S. withdrawal will be very gradual and "conditions-based." Woodward's exposition of Obama's restless eagerness to get out wipes away those efforts.

A collision between Obama and the Afghan surge faction is inevitable

Of the many revelations in early previews of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars, the most corrosive is the obstinacy President Barack Obama faced from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and then Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. According to the Washington Post‘s reporting of the book, Obama repeatedly pressed his military advisors for an exit plan from Afghanistan. "I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars," Obama said. Yet according to the Post, Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus — whom I will term the Afghan surge faction — essentially barred from consideration any plan that did not involve a counterinsurgency strategy requiring at least 30,000 more U.S. troops. In spite of their resistance to his wishes, Obama chose not to confront the surge faction, opting instead to accommodate their policy inside a muddled compromise. But the compromise will only delay an inevitable clash.

Woodward’s book strongly reinforces the impression that Obama’s paramount goal in Afghanistan is to find the exit. Gates, Petraeus, and others have attempted to dilute the harmful effect of Obama’s July 2011 deadline by explaining that any U.S. withdrawal will be very gradual and "conditions-based." Woodward’s exposition of Obama’s restless eagerness to get out wipes away those efforts.

If one purpose of the surge was to achieve negotiating leverage over the Taliban, Woodward’s book will instead reinforce their determination to hang on and fight. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, it is U.S. commanders who are downgrading their expectations for military progress. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now likely to redouble his efforts to make a separate peace with Pakistan and the Taliban, a chilling prospect for many of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

Thus, by next summer the United States is likely to face hardened Taliban resolve, a more belligerent Karzai, and an Afghanistan that might be splintering along ethnic lines, trends reinforced by Obama’s yearning for the door. If by next summer the counterinsurgency strategy’s hoped-for improvements have not arrived, Obama’s long-delayed confrontation with the surge faction will very likely occur. Obama is likely to look for a new team to implement the policy he wanted all along. The White House has already probably been preparing for Gates’s retirement and the end of Mullen’s tour as Joint Chiefs chairman. The termination of Petraeus’s command in Kabul would be much more dramatic.

For the United States, there is a strict inverse relationship between the size of a troop commitment to a shooting war and the amount of time the public will allow for clear results. For example, in contrast to the political time pressure Obama feels regarding Afghanistan, the small but successful foreign internal defense missions the United States conducts in Colombia and the Philippines are under no time pressure as they gradually accumulate progress.

When policymakers choose a military strategy that comes with a short fuse, periodic decision-point crises get built into the strategy. According to Woodward, Obama perceived that the American public would give him just two years to do something in Afghanistan. True, but only because of the options forced on him by the Afghan surge faction. One of the crises built into Obama’s Afghan strategy was a clash with the promoters of that strategy. Obama might regret not having that clash in 2009, before he committed so much prestige and so many lives to a strategy he never had the resolve to properly see through.

Does the terrorism threat in Yemen warrant a billion-dollar response?

Officials at U.S. Central Command are pushing a six-year $1.2 billion security force assistance program for Yemen. If approved, the program would provide Yemen’s military and police with automatic weapons, patrol boats, helicopters, transport aircraft, spare parts, other support equipment, and training. This long-term $200 million per year commitment is a huge change in policy; in 2006, U.S. security assistance to Yemen totaled just $5 million. Centcom’s plan does not please everyone. The State Department is resisting, claiming that the program is too big for Yemen and that a six-year commitment forfeits U.S. leverage over Yemen’s subsequent behavior. Others are concerned that Yemen’s autocratic ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will use this enhanced military power to battle his domestic opponents rather than al Qaeda. And some wonder whether the pricey attention Yemen is now receiving from U.S. national security officials is simply an overreaction to the al Qaeda presence there.

It is Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric now hiding in Yemen and the spiritual motivator to at least three recent homegrown terrorist plots, who has caused Yemen to rise to the top of the U.S. government’s worry chart. The president has already authorized a Hellfire missile for Awlaki’s forehead, should someone be able to find him. While that manhunt goes on, U.S. counterterrorism officials now speculate that more small-scale terrorist attacks inside the United States, like those instigated by Awlaki, are likely.

Given a choice between doing less and doing more in Yemen, the political risk calculus for the Obama administration is to overrule the State Department and approve Centcom’s big security force assistance program. The virtual absence of terrorist attacks inside the United States since 2001 has burdened the government with maintaining this nearly perfect record indefinitely. A single carbomb or a one-person Mumbai-style shootout will be viewed by many as a dramatic homeland security failure. Homeland security officials seem resigned to the near-impossibility of thwarting all such small-ball attacks in advance. But after such an attack occurs, the public will want to know what the government was doing to suppress the source of the problem in places like Yemen. Thus, from the perspective of political risk management, the administration has a strong incentive to show that it was executing a vigorous counterterrorism program, like that proposed for Yemen.

The U.S. government has another reason to try out Centcom’s plan for Yemen. Win or lose in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government will not be attempting any more large-scale, manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaigns anytime soon. Another approach is needed. The new model will be security force assistance and foreign internal defense programs like Centcom’s plan. Advocates of this approach will want to demonstrate that in the post-counterinsurgency era, this model can work for a tough case like Yemen.

Some will still object that the plan for Yemen, though a better approach than what’s currently in place, is too large, too expensive, and too wasteful. Perhaps, but it is more important now to show that the model can work. After that happens,
policymakers can worry about economizing.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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