National Security Network

With Conservatives Clamoring for Endless War, Obama Hones in on Core Goals

Print this page
Report 2 December 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal john kyl john mccain lindsay graham President Barack Obama


Last night, before an audience of cadets at West Point, President Obama brought months of deliberate review to a close by announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  He outlined America’s ultimate goal: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”  According to the President, achieving this objective will require that the U.S. act swiftly to reverse the insurgency’s momentum, ramp up non-military assistance to allow the Afghan government to stand on its own, and partner with Pakistan in recognition that its future is closely bound to Afghanistan.  To discipline the process and ensure that the U.S. will responsibly transition control to its Afghan partners, the President announced that starting in July 2011, the U.S. will begin transferring forces out of Afghanistan in a conditions-based timeframe.

Predictably, conservatives have tried to have it both ways – applauding the troop increase while denouncing the changes that give the strategy its best shot at effectiveness.    Rejecting any inclusion of a timeline for ending the war, or a plan for transitioning responsibility to Afghans, conservatives have displayed a tired devotion to an open-ended military commitment there.  Not only does this approach undercut the U.S.’s ability to emphasize the fundamental issue of accountability and improved governance by our Afghan partners, but it also fuels a narrative of endless conflict that al-Qaeda is happy to promote. 

The President’s team now faces the tough challenge of implementing the strategy he has laid out.  For the U.S. to bring the mission in Afghanistan to a successful close, it is critical that the administration remain focused on its core objective.  It must follow through on its promise to hold the Afghan government accountable, creating the conditions for a transition to a U.S. – Afghan partnership that will endure without a military presence.  More importantly, the administration must hold itself accountable, communicating its progress to Congress and the American people, and remaining true to the President’s pledge that “that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”

Conservatives, arguing for an open-ended military commitment with no exit strategy, criticize President Obama’s use of time lines.  In his speech last night explaining the new strategy in Afghanistan, the President said that “these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.  Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.  We'll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.  But it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”

In response, conservatives have gone on the attack against the president’s use of a time frame for transferring American troops out of Afghanistan.  In a released statement, Senator John McCain (R – AZ), who is generally supportive of the strategy, said “A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region – all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war.  A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) similarly said that “The one thing I’m concerned about is this idea we’re going to begin to leave before we get there. I don’t know how that’s going to play.” Senator Jon Kyl (R – AZ) also said this weekend on FOX News Sunday that we should not even discuss an exit strategy: “talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go... all that does is signal to the enemies and also to our allies, to the folks in Pakistan as well as the Afghanis, that we’re not there to stay until the mission is accomplished.”  

However, we know that al Qaeda would welcome a continued American military presence in the region.  Osama Bin Laden famously said in 2004 that, “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies.”   [Barack Obama, 12/1/09. Sen. John McCain, 12/2/09. Sen. Lindsey Graham, CNN via WCBD News, 12/02/09. Sen. Jon Kyl, 11/29/09. Osama Bin Laden, via Washington Post, 11/1/04]

New strategy will hold Afghan government accountable, creating conditions for U.S. transfer of control.  One of the principle foundations of the new strategy is to hold the Karzai government in Kabul accountable, something that the President took steps to address in his speech last night.    In the speech, the President said that “This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.  We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.  We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.  And we will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”

Holding the Afghan government accountable helps build a stronger partner government in Afghanistan – essential to the counterinsurgency strategy of “Clear, Hold, Build, and Transfer.”  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen recently said, "[t]his isn't all just about the military. This isn't all just about the number of troops because we can't do it alone... we have to have a development plan. We have to have a governance plan that goes hand-in-glove as we go forward.” This morning on NPR, a group of experts discussing the president’s speech made similar points.  John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security, said that “President Karzai, after a clearly fraudulent election, gave a very good inauguration speech, said the right things.  The President announced last night some new incentives, both carrots and sticks to try to coerce his government, both from the top and at all levels, to be more effective.  We’re going to have to wait and see if he’ll deliver now.  And Steve Coll of the New America Foundation said that the development of the Afghan security forces “doesn’t depend only on Karzai’s attitude.  It’s also going to depend on the integrity of the politics and the ethnic balance inside those forces and the sense of purpose they develop in partnership with international forces.” [Barack Obama, 12/1/09. Admiral Michel Mullen, via AP, 11/20/09. NPR, 12/2/09]

With the new strategy announced, it’s time for the Administration to follow through and be held accountable as well. Now that the President has announced his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the difficult task of implementation begins.  In order for the strategy to have the best chance of success, the president’s team must maintain focus on its core objectives and remember his assertion that “Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”  Center for American Progress expert Caroline Wadhams weighed in with several key questions that must be answered as the President’s strategy is implemented:

Centrality of justice: “While Obama mentioned supporting agriculture as a top U.S. priority, he made no mention of improving justice in his civilian strategy despite this being a top grievance for Afghans, a mobilizing tool for insurgents, and an essential way to battle corruption.”

Personalization of aid: “He implied that the U.S. government would increase funding to individuals at the local level. “We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.”  Did he mean to say that we will support Governorships, Provincial councils and local institutions? A personalization of our assistance could be dangerous because of our limited knowledge of the players.  It could also further weaken government institutions and undermine coordination with our partners.”

Use of troops: “Obama stated that additional U.S. troops would be used to protect population centers and train Afghan security forces. While he didn’t mention this in the speech, many have reported that these troops will go the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.  Will a surge of U.S. troops in these regions, where we are largely disliked, feed into the Taliban narrative of foreign occupation?   Will we serve to inflame more than resolve despite our best intentions?   Can we protect populations who do not like us from insurgents that they may now support?”

Marc Lynch remarked that the best way “to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise.” [President Obama, 12/01/09. Caroline Wadhams, 12/02/09. Marc Lynch, 12/02/09]

What We’re Reading

Pressure on developing nations, like India, to cut their carbon emissions grows ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit. Australia’s Senate voted against a carbon-restriction plan, harming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s negotiating position at Copenhagen.

Kim Jong Il of North Korea orders a major change in monetary policy, wiping out the personal savings of many North Koreans.

Israel expresses concern over a European Union statement supporting the right of Palestinians to claim East Jerusalem as a future capital of a Palestinian state.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to prod the West with additional statements that support expanded nuclear enrichment. Iran’s government is also debating whether or not to change state subsidies on gasoline as a manner of dealing with potential new sanctions.

To mark World AIDS Day, South African President Jacob Zuma announced an overview of his country’s AIDS policy in order to offer more preventive measures.

Iraqi filmmakers are offering movie screenings at former sites of suicide bombers in order to help combat a climate of fear amongst Iraqis.

Yukiya Amano of Japan becomes director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as concerns about Iran and North Korea continue to mount.

Chechen rebels claim responsibility for the recent train bombing in Russia.

A suicide bomber attacked just outside the headquarters of the Pakistani Navy in Islamabad.

Egyptians seek answers over a rising number of sexual harassment cases occurring during their holiday season.  

Commentary of the Day

Björn Conrad and Stephan Mergenthaler believe that the European Union needs to take on some responsibility of its own if it really wants to cooperate with China on multilateralism.

Jody Williams explains her concern over the Obama administration’s reluctance to join the Mine Ban Treaty.

The Boston Globe supports continued engagement with Iran’s regime over its nuclear program.