Lowering Expectations

by Tom Donnelly

This is not a good omen.

Undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy is the dictionary definition of a hawkish Democrat.  While it’s true that there are increasing contradictions in the very term–we’re not really talking Harry Truman anymore–the strategic implications of a faltering commitment to Afghanistan would be obvious to her.  So when she’s lowering expectations, I sit up and take notice.  And the fact that Flournoy would give an extended, on-the-record interview on the subject is itself noteworthy
We have to take the administration at its word. Apparently, they are indeed reevaluating the most fundamental questions: Why are we in Afghanistan?  What do we hope to achieve?  Is it worth the price?  All good things to know before putting more soldiers’ live at risk, spending more defense dollars, or laying the prestige of the nation on the line.

But this begins to look more and more disingenuous.  “The outcome is uncertain”–when, in war, is it not?  “You have some new challenges”–when, for example, was Hamid Karzai a leader of unquestioned legitimacy?  “There are issues of…capacity across the board in Afghanistan”–this is not news.  “Everybody seems to be talking about growing the [Afghan security forces]”–they have, for several years now.

If, in the end, the president does choose to fill Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s force request, this temporizing may seem like a tempest inside a Beltway teapot.  On the other hand, anything less than the 40,000 additional troops the commander thinks are necessary will continue to raise questions about the administration’s resolve. The delay is not defusing the situation, but making it worse. Flournoy says the process will play out “over the coming weeks;” Obama won’t be rushed.

Finally, Flournoy asserts that the ultimate decision will be “strategy-driven” and that “political” assessments–one can only assume American domestic political assessments–will be taken into account. Yet one of the hallmarks of a sound strategy is that it changes slowly, not in response to every shift of events.  The administration’s AfPak plan–the basis for McChrystal’s assessment–begins to look less like strategy and more like tactics.

Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.