A tale of two Afghan decisions
British Prime Minister David Cameron has decided on a slower-than-expected withdrawal from Afghanistan making for an interesting contrast with Obama’s own faster-than-expected end to the surge. If economics or public opinion could explain everything, then surely one would have forecasted that Cameron would opt for a faster-than-Obama exit from Afghanistan. Public opinion in Britain has ...
If economics or public opinion could explain everything, then surely one would have forecasted that Cameron would opt for a faster-than-Obama exit from Afghanistan. Public opinion in Britain has been much softer than it has in the United States, and the Afghanistan mission has been a political hot-potato in Britain much longer than it has here. And, of course, the original casus belli does not resonate quite so viscerally in Britain as it does in America. Perhaps of greater significance, the financial strain of the mission has been far greater (in proportional terms) for Britain than it has been for the United States. The Brits headed for the Iraqi exit with exceptional haste (especially compared with Obama’s approach), and a similar pattern in Afghanistan would not have surprised many.
But it didn’t happen, and it may be that Obama and Cameron just have different risk tolerances. Both were told that leaving quickly was very risky and perhaps Obama simply tolerates more risk on national security than does Cameron.
I suspect, however, that a more likely explanation is the civil-military relations factor. The senior military on both sides of the Atlantic saw the risks of a withdrawal in roughly similar ways. Both sets of military leaders recommended to their political superiors that the maximum fighting force be left to support combat operations through the end of the 2012 fighting season. But they did it in different ways.
The U.S. military advised within the chain of command. Their views were known to a larger audience, chiefly through media reporting, but the military leaders themselves were remarkably circumspect in their on-the-record public remarks. The British military conducted a two-pronged advisory campaign, one prong within the chain of command and the other prong very publicly in on-the-record remarks apparently designed to increase political pressure on Cameron
The British approach “worked” in the sense of producing the political decision senior military thought was best, but that is not how things are supposed to go in democratic civil-military relations. If Obama has his work cut out for him in repairing his relations with his military, the work-load probably is reversed on the other side of the pond. I would not be surprised to learn that the British military have gained something of a phyrric victory in this decision and that senior British military leaders have some distance to go to restore the full confidence of the prime minister and his staff.
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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