National Security Network

Getting Afghanistan Strategy Right

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Report 29 September 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan McChrystal Obama Obama Administration


As pressure mounts on the Obama administration to explain its way forward in Afghanistan, the Administration is doing its homework in developing an effective strategy.  Unlike previous administrations, the current one is pursuing, as Secretary Gates said yesterday, “the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s.”  This is not a tidy process, as the uncertainty surrounding the flawed presidential elections last month has demonstrated.  But one thing is for certain – getting Afghanistan policy right will require more than a purely military approach.

Getting Afghanistan policy right is about much more than a magic bullet number of troops. President Obama explained “we are not going to put the cart before the horse and just think that sending more troops will automatically make America safe.” Hearing all sides in the vibrant political-military debate that is taking place amongst experts will allow the Administration to avoid the “group-think” that has plagued past administrations, especially on Afghanistan. This clear-eyed approach to managing the war stands in stark contrast to the self-assured ideological approach that characterized President Bush’s war-time decision making, which failed to take real facts – even the unwelcome ones – into account.  That failed approach has had dire consequences for our national security, and the important debate taking place now is both refreshing and significant.  Hypocritically, conservatives have started attacking the President for not rushing to increase troops. Instead, of playing political games with the war, this Administration is focused on getting the strategy right.

The U.S. is developing its first real Afghanistan strategy since the 1980’s, and it’s not just about troop levels. This weekend, in an exchange with CNN’s John King, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – who served in high-level positions under three Republican presidents – said that President Obama has put forth the first real Afghanistan strategy in decades. Here’s their exchange: “GATES: Well, I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s. And that strategy was more about the Soviet Union than it was about Afghanistan. KING: You served in the Bush administration. That's a pretty broad damnation of the Bush strategy.  GATES: Well, the reality is, we were fighting a holding action. We were very deeply engaged in Iraq. I increased -- I extended the 10th Mountain Division the first month I was on this job in January of '07. I extended -- I put another brigade into Afghanistan in the spring of 2007. And that's all we had to put in there. Every - we were - we were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we have now.”

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that without the correct strategy, the debate over troop levels is meaningless. In that piece, Kerry stated the following:, “So far, the debate has focused on absolute numbers—how many U.S. and allied troops are required, how many Afghan soldiers and police do we need to train, how many more billions must we pour into that impoverished country? All the numbers are meaningless if the goal is ambiguous or the strategy is wrong.”  The administration is taking this advice to heart. [Robert Gates, CNN,9/27/09. Admiral Mullen, Defense Link, 12/17/07. John Kerry, Wall Street Journal, 9/27/09]

Despite hypocritical conservative heckling, the U.S. cannot win by military means alone.  The Afghanistan debate has been distorted by an unbalanced emphasis on military resources, particularly by prominent conservatives associated with the Iraq War.  In a joint op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Senators McCain (R,AZ), Lieberman (I-D,CT) and Graham (R,SC) argued that “we must commit the ‘decisive force’ that Gen. McChrystal tells us carries the least risk of failure.”  Their piece urgedthe President to defer unquestioningly to his commanders on the ground.  However, Senator McCain’s current position on Afghanistan, as ABC News noted, came after years of neglecting Afghanistan policy.  At one point, he even advocated that the U.S. simply “muddle through” in Afghanistan.  He has also consistently misread the situation on the ground there, as he repeatedly declared the Afghanistan mission a success in 2005, when the situation was deteriorating.  He also resisted calls for more troops from generals on the ground in 2006.  It’s clear that his advice on how to manage the Afghanistan war has been confused and off base.    

Furthermore, it is clear that the focus for the past eight years has relied too heavily on the military part of the equation, to the detriment of the civilian side, and that a comprehensive strategy for determining the way forward is needed.  As Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress recently wrote in Foreign Policy: “While the security situation in Afghanistan is dire and deteriorating, more U.S. and NATO troops alone are not going to solve Afghanistan's greatest challenges of weak governance, a growing insurgency, entrenched criminal and narcotics trafficking networks, and deep poverty.”  This view has long been shared by senior civilian and military officials:

  • NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke at the Atlantic Council yesterday and CBS News reported him stating “We cannot continue to do exactly what we’re doing now.”  He also called for more focus on civilian reconstruction to accompany the military campaign and said that “Things are going to have to change.”
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen stated “I consider the threat from lack of governance to be equal to the threat from the Taliban... the lack of legitimacy in the government at every level has been a key factor in the return of the Taliban after US-led forces drove them from power after the September 11, 2001terrorist attacks.” reported AFP.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also recently said “In order for our military intervention to be effective, when they go in and try to clear areas of extremists, we have to go in and build up the capacity of the local community.
  • CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus has also recently said that “Military action is absolutely necessary but it is not sufficient… political, economic and diplomatic activity is critical to capitalize on gains in the security arena."

[Senators McCain (R – AZ), Lieberman (Ind. – CT) and Graham (R – SC) via the WSJ, 9/13/09. ABC, 7/15/08. Caroline Wadhams, Foreign Policy, 09/28/09. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, CBS News, 9/29/09.  Admiral Mullen, via AFP, 9/15/09. Secretary of State Clinton, via Meet the Press, 7/26/09. General David Petraeus, via USA Today, 9/14/08]

The president is taking a thoughtful, comprehensive approach, not panicking and rushing too quickly to a foolish decision.   This past Sunday on ‘This Week,’ Bob Woodward contrasted President Obama with his predecessor, saying “As we all know from covering George W. Bush, all you had to do was find out what his gut was and then they would have meetings about how to implement what his gut was.”  He went on say that “the decider here is President Obama.”  The president is listening to advice and recommendations from a number of experts in order to determine the best policy.  While this may be unsettling to those who have absolute certainty about the correct way forward in Afghanistan, it is refreshing to those who believe that avoiding “group-think” and “gut decisions” in policy making is in our national interest.  In interviews last weekend, President Obama emphasized that he would bring a focused, methodical approach to determining the way forward in Afghanistan, being sure not to adopt any strategy prematurely.  He said on Meet the Press that, “What I'm not also gonna do, though, is put the resource question before the strategy question. Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy I'm not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have… I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way – you know, sending a message that America is here for the duration.”  On CNN’s State of the Union, Obama elaborated, arguing that the strategy should keep a clear mission in mind, when he said “if we have a overarching strategy that reminds us every day that that's our focus, that we have a better chance of capturing and killing him [Osama bin-Laden] and certainly keeping Al Qaida on the run... than if we start drifting into a whole bunch of other missions that really aren't related to what is our essential strategic problem and rationale for being there.” [Bob Woodward, ABC News, 9/27/09. President Obama, Meet the Press, 9/20/09. President Obama, CNN, 9/20/09.]

What We’re Reading

NATO’s new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he believes more NATO troops are needed in Afghanistan. Debate continues over how many additional troops General McChrystal could receive, while military officials are increasingly wary of the haven senior Taliban leaders enjoy in Quetta, Pakistan.

The Iraqi Government is suffering from a budget crush that is preventing it from buying American military equipment. Meanwhile, new bombings in Iraq kill at least 15.

The United States wants to further isolate Iran should talks failing to gain any traction on a variety of issues, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guards conduct war games testing their most advanced missile technology. American, European and Israeli intelligence officials debate if and how far Iranian engineers have gone in designing a nuclear warhead.
Also, student protests against the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued in Tehran.

The White House concedes the difficultly in closing Guantanamo Bay as the January deadline draws closer.

The latest Defense bill is loaded with earmarks, says a watchdog budget group.

Debate swirls as the White House conducts its review of Sudan policy, with options including renewed diplomatic relationships with the only current head of state indicted on war crimes.

Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court threw out a terrorism charge against one of Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights activists.

Honduras’ interim government may reestablish constitutional guarantees which were recently suspending during their ongoing internal political crisis.

China celebrates the 60th anniversary of the founding of their communist government.

North Korea amends its constitution to further solidify centralized power within its leader, Kim Jong-Il, while incorporating edits such recognizing human rights in order to reestablish itself in the international community.

The Obama administration announced new humanitarian aid to Burma and possible talks with Burmese officials in order to build better relations with the reclusive Southeast Asian nation.

Ironically, Europe’s worst economic climate since World War II has not resulted in electoral victory for socialist and left-wing parties.

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius describes his visit to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, and the political rifts affecting their work with American intelligence officials.

The New York Time applauds Attorney General Eric Holder’s new guidelines for invoking the “state secrets” privilege, but hopes for additional guidelines, such as a mandated court-review of cases seeking a state-secrets privilege, to help make the Administration as transparent as possible.

Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz explain how the economic crisis is a historical precedent for America’s waning military dominance, and how to prevent a further collapse of current global interdependence.