Exit, Minus Strategy

Barack Obama has clearly decided to cut his losses in Afghanistan. Will all hell break lose when he does?

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama listened to his generals the first time around; now he knows better. The Obama of 2009, new to the job, unsure of his relationship to the military and perhaps slightly overawed by his superstar commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley MacChrystal, agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign he didn't quite believe in. The Obama of 2013 is prepared to overrule the recommendation of his current commander, Gen. John Allen, and leave few -- if any -- troops behind after U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. That's what's known as a learning curve.

America's obsession with terrorism has wrenched the relationship between civilian leadership and the military in several different directions. The attacks of 9/11 unleashed the ideologues around President George W. Bush -- and exposed his own fervent dreams -- while the uniformed military clung to the cautionary precepts inherited from the Vietnam War. It was Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who acted as field marshal of the war in Iraq, operating through the compliant commander he chose, Tommy Franks. Having routed the Taliban on his own terms, Rumsfeld felt that he had every reason to ignore advice from service commanders who argued for more troops, much as he ignored advice from State Department officials who warned to prepare for the post-conflict setting. We know where that got us.

By the time Barack Obama took office, the situation was reversed. Obama was a cautionary figure with an ingrained skepticism about America's capacity to reshape the world, especially through the use of force. But by 2009, David Petraeus, mastermind of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, had come to incarnate a new kind of hero-general, bold and brilliant and charismatic. Stanley MacChrystal, who replaced him as commander of forces in Afghanistan, had the ascetic appeal of a Jedi Knight. Both men, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book The Insurgents, captured the public imagination and helped re-write the public understanding of military culture and military leadership. And both had come to be gripped by a master idea: counterinsurgency, or COIN. They were ideologues, just as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had been in the years before.

President Barack Obama listened to his generals the first time around; now he knows better. The Obama of 2009, new to the job, unsure of his relationship to the military and perhaps slightly overawed by his superstar commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley MacChrystal, agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign he didn’t quite believe in. The Obama of 2013 is prepared to overrule the recommendation of his current commander, Gen. John Allen, and leave few — if any — troops behind after U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. That’s what’s known as a learning curve.

America’s obsession with terrorism has wrenched the relationship between civilian leadership and the military in several different directions. The attacks of 9/11 unleashed the ideologues around President George W. Bush — and exposed his own fervent dreams — while the uniformed military clung to the cautionary precepts inherited from the Vietnam War. It was Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who acted as field marshal of the war in Iraq, operating through the compliant commander he chose, Tommy Franks. Having routed the Taliban on his own terms, Rumsfeld felt that he had every reason to ignore advice from service commanders who argued for more troops, much as he ignored advice from State Department officials who warned to prepare for the post-conflict setting. We know where that got us.

By the time Barack Obama took office, the situation was reversed. Obama was a cautionary figure with an ingrained skepticism about America’s capacity to reshape the world, especially through the use of force. But by 2009, David Petraeus, mastermind of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, had come to incarnate a new kind of hero-general, bold and brilliant and charismatic. Stanley MacChrystal, who replaced him as commander of forces in Afghanistan, had the ascetic appeal of a Jedi Knight. Both men, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book The Insurgents, captured the public imagination and helped re-write the public understanding of military culture and military leadership. And both had come to be gripped by a master idea: counterinsurgency, or COIN. They were ideologues, just as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had been in the years before.

Obama never caught the bug, as Bush had. He tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, with punching holes in the optimistic counterinsurgency narrative. Over time, according to Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars, the president grew increasingly skeptical that the U.S. could remake Afghanistan in the few short years during which American troops would remain there, or even that it needed to. He wondered why the United States had to worry about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan when the real threat was al Qaeda. But both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that a Taliban victory would bring al Qaeda back to Afghanistan; and Obama ultimately agreed to a slightly diminished version of MacChrystal’s middle option, which had called for 40,000 troops along with a big increase in civilian presence. He may have felt that he could not afford to substitute his judgment for that of America’s military poster boys.

COIN has had its great experiment; and it has been found wanting. The massive program of development assistance and government reform which accompanied the military surge has done little either to reduce the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state or to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan public. One recent study found that in the country’s most fiercely contested provinces aid is negatively correlated with both stability and popular perceptions of the international presence. It never seemed plausible — save, perhaps, to MacChrystal, who spoke of bringing "government-in-a-box" — that the U.S. could significantly boost the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s government in three years; and White House officials have long since stopped speaking of political or economic reform as a crucial piece of their exit strategy.

Over the last year, as public support for the war effort has dropped as low as 23 percent, Obama has abandoned one piece after another of the strategy he once envisioned. A new "partnership" with Pakistan involving development assistance, security coordination, and regional diplomacy was to persuade Islamabad to close up the sanctuaries where insurgents trained and organized, and took refuge from U.S. forces. That, too, has turned out to be a pipe dream; it’s a good day when Islamabad and Washington are even speaking to one another. The neologism "AfPak," meant to denote the inextricability of the two problems, has become an anachronism. Indeed, the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama created soon after taking office in order to forge "whole-of-government" solutions to this complex regional problem has probably outlived its usefulness. It was, after all, created for Richard Holbrooke, the late diplomat who fervently embraced this approach. The White House is said to be thinking of replacing the office with a special envoy.

The exit strategy from Afghanistan increasingly looks like: exit, minus strategy. General Allen has been constantly ratcheting down the number of U.S. troops needed to remain after 2014 to carry out counterterror missions and continue training Afghan forces — from 20,000 to 15,000 to three options at 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops. But that still may be too much: Earlier this week, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said that the president may leave no troops behind at all. That was a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who’s now in Washington trying to make case for a larger residual U.S. presence, but also to the Pentagon. General Allen is not David Petraeus. (David Petraeus is no longer David Petraeus, for that matter.) And Obama, who must think about many things which do not enter into his generals’ ken, like public opinion and the budget deficit, will make up his own mind. He is saying, in effect, that he can live with failure.

Is that a bad thing? In a Washington Post op-ed last November, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, the gung-ho generals of the Institute for the Study of War, predicted that, absent a remaining force of 40,000 troops, the United States will be unable to engage in serious counterterror operations, affect the Afghan political process as the country approaches a crucial election in 2014, or engage in meaningful nation-building.

That may be hyperbolic, but it certainly defines what’s at stake. It is, for example, extremely unlikely that Afghan forces will be able to stand on their own once U.S. troops leave. Even the Pentagon’s extremely rosy December 2012 progress report concedes that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is ready to fight on its own. And a recent article in the New York Times reports that the people of Marja district in Helmand Province, brought back to bustling life after months of bloody battle by U.S. Marines, have already resigned themselves to the return of the Taliban once American forces pack up.

The Obama who hopes to pivot to Asia, and to nation-building-at-home, just may not care that much anymore. I imagine that the president and his team, now thoroughly cured of the military’s can-do spirit of optimism, regard reports of Afghan military readiness with as much skepticism as most of the rest of us do. They would like to keep Afghan whole after 2014, but they are no longer prepared to pay the price that may be required to do so. They are hoping — but it’s just a hope — that they can close the door on Afghanistan as they already have on Iraq, continuing to provide billions in development assistance, budgetary support, and military training while the Afghans sort out their security and political problems on their own. Drone warfare has seriously eroded al Qaeda’s ranks in Pakistan, and the war on terror has moved on to Yemen and North Africa. Even the counterterror aspect of the Afghan war has thus lost some of its urgency.

And if the hopes for Afghan self-sufficiency prove baseless, as they very well might? U.S. failure in Vietnam was supposed to bring calamity in its wake — but it didn’t. If Afghanistan really is the Vietnam of our time, then Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon, has decided to cut his losses.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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