The long process during which President Obama has reconsidered America’s commitment to what he described as a necessary war in Afghanistan has transformed the purpose of his West Point speech tomorrow night. The first-order question is not the number of troops or the proper strategy; it’s more elemental: does this man believe in victory?
The world wants to know. The U.S. military wants a clear mission from its commander-in-chief and to feel that he has the will to win. The American public wants to understand why it should sacrifice blood and treasure. The Afghans want to know whether we will stand by them. Our allies and our enemies will watch as well, and judge our nation according to their assessment of our president.
The message he must communicate is beyond pure reason. The troop numbers, the strategic rationale and the policy direction matter more as indicators of temperament than as elements of an argument. The question of commitment was less pressing six months ago when Gen. Stanley McChrystal, trumpets across Washington blaring, was sent to take command in Afghanistan. But now it can no longer be avoided. The current moment is a test of the president’s “courage d’esprit,” of his determination. As ever, Clausewitz put it aright:
Determination, which dispels doubt, is a quality that can be aroused only by the intellect, and by a specific cast of mind at that. More is required to create determination than a mere conjunction of superior insight with the appropriate emotions. Same may bring the keenest brains to the most formidable problems, and may possess the courage to accept serious responsibilities; but when faced with a difficult situation they still find themselves unable to reach a decision….In short, we believe that determination proceeds from a special type of mind, from a strong rather than a brilliant one.
Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the long list of initiatives and partnerships announced in the joint statement issued by President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following the prime minister’s visit to the U.S. last week.
After the usual boilerplate about democracy and shared values, the statement introduces a Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative to improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism efforts between the two countries; a Clean Energy and Climate Change Initiative to further alternative energy technology access; a Framework for Cooperation on Trade and Investment; an Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative to increase educational exchanges; and six other partnerships on issues ranging from food security to public health. Both countries are serious about institutionalizing their growing linkages.
These diverse efforts show that America and India’s mutual affinity – cultivated by the Clinton administration and solidified by President Bush’s landmark nuclear cooperation agreement – will surely continue under President Obama, despite legitimate fears on both sides that the Obama team’s deference to China and Pakistan could compromise India’s desire for a stronger partnership. Beyond power politics, however, it makes sense for the U.S. to pursue closer economic and cultural ties with India. The country boasts a rapidly growing economy, a burgeoning middle class, and a strong network of wealthy Indian expatriates at home.
So why should we still be nervous about the U.S.-India relationship?
The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that, as expected, the White House has balked at the recommendation of Gen. McChrystal and others to double the projected end strength of the Afghan National Security Forces. Never mind that Afghanistan’s defense minister and others within the Afghan government have insisted that a combined force of 400,000–the number recommended by McChrystal and reportedly floated within the White House prior to the March strategy announcement–will be necessary to sufficiently police and defend the country. And never mind that Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin indicated this weekend that he hopes an “Afghan surge” will feature prominently in president’s new strategy. Despite all the recent talk of exit strategies and off-ramps, the administration appears determined to shortchange what is perhaps its surest route to a responsible and swift withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan: increasing Afghans’ ability to provide for their own security.
And whereas earlier skepticism within the administration about growing the ANA had stemmed from the anticipated costs of the endeavor, concerns now seem to focus on the feasibility of accelerated training, as well as the Afghan government’s ability to sustain a dramatically expanded force. Explains the WSJ:
“‘The president has a realistic view of how successful the training regimen can be, and that has helped inform his decision,’ a senior administration official said Sunday. …
The proposal [for doubling the ANSF] initially found support within the administration, where senior officials have talked openly about wanting to quickly transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces.
But as the months-long administration strategy review has worn on, Vice President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials have become skeptical that the Afghan central government could retain, train and support so large a force, even with considerable Western support.”
To be sure, the process of growing the ANSF will not be easy. The ANA continues to have difficulties with recruiting and retention. But there is certainly a value in setting ambitious targets. What’s more, American commanders on the ground have consistently called for increased assistance from Afghan forces, and the demand will no doubt grow as the pace of operations accelerates in the coming year. Finally, it’s important to note that a strong, sufficiently-sized ANSF will not only be an integral element of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan in the near term, but it also has the potential to serve as the backbone for a healthy Afghan state in the years to come. In short, as Gen. McChrystal and our Afghan allies have made clear, it’s well worth our investment.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the U.S. intelligence chief in Afghanistan, said the American intelligence effort in Afghanistan is under-resourced and requires more UAVs, intelligence analysts, and surveillance satellites to defeat the Taliban insurgency. According to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times, Flynn, who was sent to Afghanistan to improve the quality of U.S. intelligence gathering there, is said to be frustrated that other senior officers at home do not view the issue with the same degree of urgency. Originally ordered by Gen. McChrystal to lead an overhaul of how U.S. intelligence is gathered, analyzed, distributed, and employed by American troops in the field, Flynn joined McChrystal’s inner circle from the Joint Staff at the Pentagon where he was the J-2 responsible for military intelligence. Flynn firmly believes in the military’s need for a radically different approach to collecting intelligence on insurgent networks, their resources, movements, and whereabouts. To build a complete picture of the enemy, Flynn believes, the U.S. needs to do a better job at collecting and exploiting information on insurgents when they move, regroup, and communicate after an American or allied attack. In the past, the military primarily employed intelligence to plan and prepare for military operations, and to adjust its course of action during a campaign. Today, according to Flynn, “we do the opposite. We do the [operations] to get the [intelligence].”
“After eight years…it is my intention to finish the job.”
At last Barack Obama is giving us a glimpse of how he’s approaching the decision he will be announcing next week. But what can he mean by “finishing the job?” In particular, what does he think “the job” is, and in what sense could it be “finished” anytime soon?
It seems likely that the president is trying to define the mission as narrowly as possible. “The job” sounds like a counterterrorism mission, although the administration may be willing to employ some elements of counterinsurgency or stability operations in Afghanistan to enable the counterterrorism campaign inside Pakistan to go forward. And it even seems like a narrow counterterrorism mission that focuses principally on al Qaeda rather than the broader syndicate of associated Islamist groups in the region.
But it’s the desire to “finish” the job that is most revealing. Thus the administration’s oft-repeated talking points on an “exit strategy.” Thus White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’ description of the final Afghanistan strategy session: “I think I characterized a decent part of it as not just how we get people there but what’s the strategy for getting them out.” Not a strategy for winning, but for ending the war.
No matter how narrowly defined the job becomes, it’s hard to see how it can be finished, even within the scope of two Obama presidential terms. If Osama bin Laden were to be killed tomorrow, both al Qaeda proper and the violent Islamist movements in South Asia and globally would reconstitute, recover and persist.
But there is a larger underlying problem: how we choose to define the job and what the job really is are not necessarily the same. The true task, which is large, complex but undeniably necessary, is to build a political order in South Asia that does not pose a mortal threat to the rest of the world. This, in turn, is a critical element in integrating the greater Middle East into the international system. In this regard, our job in Afghanistan is the first but hardly the last step.
Finally, the term “exit strategy” should be banished. There is no relief — least of all for an American president — from the practice of statecraft and shaping global politics. The United States has yet to “get out” of anything: the Western Hemisphere, Europe, East Asia, the Persian Gulf, or any of the world’s oceans. The job is “finished,” as it mostly is in Europe, when it’s safe for free people — when they can “stay in,” not get out.
Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.
Reports today indicate that President Obama will announce his new, revised strategy for Afghanistan in an address next Tuesday. Later in the week, General Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry are expected to testify before Congress, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s also been reported that the president will grant McChrystal an additional 30,000-35,000 troops, roughly two brigades short of what the general is believed to have requested for his proposed “medium-risk” course of action.
It will no doubt come as a relief to many in Washington, Afghanistan, and NATO alliance capitals simply that President Obama has concluded his protracted deliberation process. But now the hard part begins. In the coming weeks and months, the president will be challenged to rally flagging support for the war among Democrats in Congress, while at the same time communicating to an increasingly skeptical American public the purpose of our mission in Afghanistan. If, as some have suggested, these past fourteen weeks have represented in part the president’s efforts to come to terms with his “ownership” of the war in Afghanistan, the test will come in his rhetorical approach to the war in next week’s address and beyond. Will he steel the American people for a long haul toward victory? Or will he reaffirm a commitment to bringing the conflict to a speedy conclusion?
What’s more, despite the steady trickle of leaks from the White House, it remains unclear just to what extent the new approach will diverge from either the administration’s original March strategy or the course of action laid out in Gen. McChrystal’s strategic assessment. The president has already thrown out the Biden-inspired “counterterrorism-only” straw-man; the White House is also reportedly attempting to “reset” its acrimonious relationship with Hamid Karzai (and Karzai, for his part, appears to have taken some initial, modest steps to address corruption within his government). Thus, reports suggesting that the new strategy will concentrate efforts on securing population centers (a key element of McChrystal’s proposed approach) while conducting a counterterrorism campaign against high-value targets further afield — and at the same time seeking more productive means of holding Afghanistan’s senior leaders accountable for corruption — should come as no surprise.
The centerpiece of the president’s remarks, then, may well be his proposed “exit strategy” for the war, a topic which appears to have become central to the debate on Afghanistan within the White House in recent weeks. As press secretary Robert Gibbs noted on Monday, the president is very concerned “not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out.” If this is indeed the case, it will mark a dramatic departure from the president’s March announcement, in which he articulated the contours of a strategy for winning the war — not simply ending it. But, as has become clear in the past months, the president had failed to internalize the extent of the commitment — military or otherwise — necessary to implement his original strategy as stated. He’s unlikely to make the same mistake again.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
flickr/The White House
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates welcomed Germany’s new defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, to the Pentagon. Upon Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election at the end of September, Guttenberg was named defense minister in the new cabinet, replacing the embattled Franz Josef Jung who moved on to become Germany’s new labor minister. At a joint press conference at the Pentagon, Gates told reporters that the U.S. and Germany “agreed to consult on a frequent basis on common challenges [both countries] face as close allies, particularly in Afghanistan.” That is good news for the transatlantic alliance and for the U.S.-German relationship. As commendable as the secretary’s and the minister’s words may be, however, “consultation” alone won’t cut it in Afghanistan. What the mission desperately needs are some hard-nosed strategic and tactical improvements to turn the situation around and win the fight there. It remains to be seen to what extent President Obama’s new strategy will encourage allies to take a harder look at their respective approaches to the Afghan mission.
Guttenberg’s message at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies should give the White House some pause. The defense minister told the audience that Germany would wait for President Obama’s decision on Afghanistan before making its own determination regarding the German Army’s Afghan mandate and potential adjustments in troop levels. American leadership, it seems, still matters to our allies-at least to Germany, the third largest contributor of forces after the U.S. and the U.K. At CSIS, Guttenberg said, “We are all eagerly [waiting] for the announcement the president is to make over here. […] A reassessment of the German commitments toward Afghanistan is possible. I cannot say today what direction, but I will say that we will certainly rethink our mandate.” Though it is unlikely that the German parliament will approve additional troops beyond the 4,500 allowed for by the existing mandate, one way to “rethink” the mandate would be to loosen up (or terminate) the German Army’s restrictive operational caveats. One cannot overstate the impact such a decision would have on the morale of German soldiers fighting, being injured, and, on occasion, dying in Afghanistan.
The Research Division at the NATO Defense College (NDC) in Rome recently released a noteworthy NDC Forum Paper titled “Counterinsurgency: the challenge for NATO strategy and operations.” In eleven chapters, this volume, edited by Dr. Christopher M. Schnaubelt, the Transformation Chair at NDC, covers a broad array of topics in counterinsurgency strategy and operations, focusing primarily on the lessons of Afghanistan: the challenge of security force assistance, the German experience in RC-North, the development of NATO special operations capabilities, among others. In his introduction to the volume, Schnaubelt quotes a Washington Post op-ed by former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in which Scheffer argued for “a more comprehensive approach” to NATO’s Afghan mission:
[NATO’s operations in Afghanistan] are still too much of a patchwork, with individual countries assigned to specific geographic areas. […] Multiple approaches to military operations and development assistance within one mission reduce effectiveness and can strain solidarity. [NATO] should have more common approaches to [its] efforts, including fewer geographic restrictions on where forces can go in support of each other.
Schnaubelt is quick to identify one of NATO’s primary strategic challenges concerning the Afghan mission:the alliance continues to be plagued by disagreements over how to define and confront violence in Afghanistan – should NATO prosecute a full-blown COIN campaign or is ISAF merely a stabilization and reconstruction operation? – as well as the relative military contributions by alliance members to the overall effort. In addition to mere force numbers, as Schnaubelt points out, ISAF is NATO’s first Article V “mutual defense” operation that, to the dismay of many in the alliance, is hampered by operational restrictions or “caveats” imposed by certain alliance members on their forces. These restrictions prohibit certain ISAF partners from engaging in full-spectrum combat operations across different regional commands. Unsurprisingly, these caveats, fueled by allegations that certain alliance members are unwilling (some of them may well also be unable) to shoulder “their fair share of the burden,” have raised the “spectre of a ‘two-tier’ alliance,” according to Schnaubelt.
It’s been suggested recently that the period since August has afforded President Obama the opportunity to come to terms with, internalize, and indeed begin to “own” the war in Afghanistan. In response to such observations, Peter Feaver has an excellent post over at Foreign Policy in which he points out that, regardless of whether or not the president has been willing to acknowledge it, he effectively took ownership of the war when he announced the conclusions of the original “Af-Pak” strategy review in March, outlining his new approach to the conflict.
Nevertheless, one test of whether Obama has in fact assumed the mantle of a wartime president will be in how he communicates his new strategy in the coming weeks, and how he treats the conflict rhetorically in the months ahead — either as a necessary war that needs to be fought to victory, or as a taxing mission that needs to be managed and quickly brought to a close. But as Gary Schmitt noted yesterday, the president’s recent remarks in China — in which he indicated that the new strategy will “put us on a path towards ending the war,” while citing his hopes of providing his successor a “clean slate” — are not encouraging.
As American support for the war continues to slip, it’s important to remember that this president has a unique capacity to shape public opinion. It would be a shame if, in the case of Afghanistan, he proved unwilling to do so.