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Obama Might Be Doing the Right Thing in Afghanistan — But Is It Too Late?

In foreign policy, timing is sometimes everything.

GettyImages-485909436_960
GettyImages-485909436_960

“You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.” This barb may (or may not) have been delivered by Winston Churchill. Either way, it came to my mind again after reading two separate stories.

Story one was the recent acknowledgement by Thomas Donilon, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, that the United States is going to become more fully engaged in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat the Islamic State. Donilon said much the same thing in an address I hosted at Duke in November. And his predictions then about steps Obama would take proved accurate, as the administration’s incremental escalation of the past two months demonstrate. So I think it is likely that what Donilon has presented more recently as his own personal opinion may well prove a harbinger of steps to come.

Story number two was the recent acknowledgement that the United States is not going to stick to the plan to leave Afghanistan the way it left Iraq in 2011. Administration officials acknowledged that sticking to the plan would be disastrous for U.S. interests. So Obama’s much-touted promise to “end the wars” will not be fulfilled when he leaves office.

“You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.” This barb may (or may not) have been delivered by Winston Churchill. Either way, it came to my mind again after reading two separate stories.

Story one was the recent acknowledgement by Thomas Donilon, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, that the United States is going to become more fully engaged in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat the Islamic State. Donilon said much the same thing in an address I hosted at Duke in November. And his predictions then about steps Obama would take proved accurate, as the administration’s incremental escalation of the past two months demonstrate. So I think it is likely that what Donilon has presented more recently as his own personal opinion may well prove a harbinger of steps to come.

Story number two was the recent acknowledgement that the United States is not going to stick to the plan to leave Afghanistan the way it left Iraq in 2011. Administration officials acknowledged that sticking to the plan would be disastrous for U.S. interests. So Obama’s much-touted promise to “end the wars” will not be fulfilled when he leaves office.

If both of these things come to pass, then the gap between what the critics are calling for Obama to do and what Obama is actually doing will narrow substantially. At that point, the president’s lament that his critics keep recommending his own policy back to him will have some truth to it — but not enough truth for me to offer a great deal of sympathy.

Here’s the rub. In national security, timing matters. Doing the right thing too late means you have done the wrong thing for too long, and that will have enormous consequences, both for the cost and the prospects for success of your policy.

While there are certainly improvements that could be made to Obama’s January 2016 counter-Islamic State, Syria, and Iraq lines of effort, the real problem is that he refused to do these lines of effort sooner when they would have had much greater effect. The problem is not so much the pace of counter-Islamic State airstrikes and operational raids in 2016; the problem is that Obama refused to authorize them in 2014 when they might have stopped the Islamic State before it became the game-changing terrorist-state it became. The problem is not that he has returned thousands of U.S. boots on the ground to Iraq in the past couple years; the problem is that he refused to leave those boots on the ground in 2011.

The Afghanistan case illustrates the matter vividly and tragically. The stay-behind force the president is authorizing in Afghanistan is probably smaller than it should be, but the reason it might be too small is that the Afghan surge did not accomplish as much as the Iraq surge did in terms of reversing the security trajectory. There are many reasons for this, but one of them surely is that Obama undercut his own surge by coupling it with a withdrawal announcement — something that President George W. Bush resolutely refused to do. Obama’s Afghan surge was hobbled from day one by the president’s promise to accelerate the withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground and his later promise to reduce U.S. forces to zero on a schedule pegged to a calendar that seemed shaped more by U.S. politics than Afghan realities. Had Obama promised from day one that he would do what he ended up doing — slowing his withdrawal schedule and agreeing to a sizable stay-behind force — he might not have hobbled his own surge.

He cannot un-ring the bell. The damage to the prospects of success in Afghanistan have already been done. To his credit, he is not compounding the damage by sticking to his promise to abandon Afghanistan altogether. But that does not make up the ground lost by the earlier strategic blunder.

If Churchill authored the quote offered in the opening, he doubtless had in mind America’s delayed entry into World War II. In that case, the United States was still able to help the allies produce a victory, but at a horrible cost. Perhaps American power will produce success again, but if so, the costs will be higher than they needed to be.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

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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