Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Afghan Deadline

President Obama did, in my analysis, the right thing by deciding to send approximately 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, and to request 5,000 more troops from NATO (although it's entirely unclear if NATO can or will come up with the requested troops), in order to provide General Stanley McChrystal with the soldiers he believes he needs to implement a counter-insurgency strategy across the country. All in all, it was a good speech, in which Obama clearly laid out the strategic rationale for sending the troops. Even more importantly, he clearly explained the strategy which those troops will help implement:

First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months.

The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 -- the fastest possible pace -- so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They'll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

Because this is an international effort, I've asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead. Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. And now, we must come together to end this war successfully. For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility -- what's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.

But taken together, 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.

Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.

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.

The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They've been confronted with occupation -- by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand -- America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect -- to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.

Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who've argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.

But one part puzzles me: the declaration that troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011. This is completely at odds with the rationale provided in the speech. If Obama believes, as he said, that "it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan" then how can he set a vague, undefined, and largely arbitrary deadline of 18 months for the mission?

I think there are two possible explanations and they're not mutually exclusive. First, that Obama is sending a message to the left-wing of the Democratic Party that he does not envision a long-term open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. And second, that Obama is sending a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US presence in his country will not be indefinite, and thus he needs to ensure that the Afghan government and armed forces will be up to the task of providing security, services, and stability when the US forces leave. Obama himself rejected the absence of a deadline, saying "[such an absence] sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

Both of these may be good and necessary messages. But the setting of the deadline is meaningless at best, and counterproductive at worst. The deadline might be meaningless because Obama didn't say anything more than "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." As Stephen Biddle commented in a Council on Foreign Relations interview, "[the Obama administration has] deliberately not said when the withdrawal will end, or how deep it will go, or how fast it will proceed. So all they're actually saying in concrete terms is in August 2011 there will be at least one fewer American soldier in Afghanistan than there was in June 2011." If that's the case, the deadline is truly meaningless, and Obama will have to deal with the backlash of his decision in the run-up to the 2012 election.

But the deadline might be counter-productive, especially as it relates to the mission at hand. If Obama means the deadline seriously, what happens if, come July 2011, there is good, solid progress but the mission is far from over? It's one thing to refuse to commit the US to an open-ended, indefinite combat mission with no clear exit strategy; it's another thing entirely to undermine a successful mission in progress by arbitrarily adhering to a withdrawal date picked a year-and-a-half earlier. The New York Times is already reporting that the deadline is causing concerns in Afghanistan:
[the Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta] admitted that the 18-month timeline for the start of a transition to Afghan authority had served something of a shock therapy to the Afghan government.

“Can we do it?” he said. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment, it is a process. They have to have strategic patience with us.”

In a clear sign of his government’s uneasiness at the flagging American enthusiasm for the Afghan war, Mr. Spanta said he had just presented a proposal to Mr. Karzai to work out a new strategic partnership with the United States to secure the kind of predictable, long-term assistance that close American allies Israel and Egypt enjoy.

All parties involved agreed that a great deal of the job ahead was about managing perceptions.

“We have to manage the public,” said a senior Afghan government aide, speaking anonymously so he could talk more freely.

President Obama was very much speaking to the American public in his speech, he said. American military officials had assured them that the 18-month timeline was more for the American public opinion than any unmovable deadline for the Afghans.

It would seem to have been much wiser for Obama to discuss clear and unambiguous metrics for judging the progress of the COIN surge -- to lay out exactly what the US expects to see happen, particularly on the two most important issues: the corruption and efficacy of the Afghan government and the training of effective Afghani military and police forces. If, after a reasonable time period following the surge (say, 18 months?), progress on the metrics was not acceptable, withdrawal of US troops would commence. If, however, progress was acceptable, and the job was not yet finished, it would then make sense to leave the troops in place to see the job through to the end. This strategy is essentially the one eventually employed in Iraq and it worked well there, encouraging action from the Iraqi government while making it clear that progress was essential to the continued US presence.

Rather than setting an either meaningless or counter-productive withdrawal date, President Obama should have made it clear that the US troop presence was entirely dependent on the Afghan government meeting clear benchmarks on ending corruption, providing basic services, and the creation of effective national armed forces. Given the vague and undefined deadline Obama set out, it's not impossible that he will ultimately employ such a tactic, which would not only be more reassuring to the US's Afghan and NATO partners, but also make clear what is expected of those partners. Let's hope the speech is followed by benchmarks.


From an Associated Press article reporting on the congressional reaction to President Obama's announcement:

[US Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates suggested the July 2011 withdrawal date was both firm and flexible, frustrating lawmakers who said that wasn't possible.

When pressed, Gates said the beginning of drawing down troops would not necessarily be based on conditions in Afghanistan and that the president was committed to begin pulling at least some troops out by the target date.

At the same time, the president will have the authority to change gears after the Defense Department conducts a formal assessment in December 2010.

Ah...that clears everything up.

No comments: