The Afghanistan Withdrawal
On December 1, after months of careful deliberation, President Obama announced a surge strategy for Afghanistan. "As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan," he told an assembled crowd at West Point, and "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."
The surge in Afghanistan was modeled after the successful strategy that President Bush implemented in Iraq. Indeed, in the quote offered by Stephen Schlesinger, Obama drew parallels to the Iraq experience. By enunciating a start date for a withdrawal, however, Obama undercut the utility and effectiveness of his surge.
The surge in Iraq succeeded because it was as much a psychological strategy as a military one. Sending in troops is not enough. From the beginning of the war in Iraq, military strategists called for the Pentagon to send more troops, and Bush on several occasions ramped up the U.S. forces in Iraq. In July 2006—that is, six months before Bush announced the surge—The New York Times described an influx of U.S. troops into Baghdad as "a version of the 'ink blot' counterinsurgency strategy of grabbing a piece of terrain, stabilizing it and gradually expanding it."
What made the Iraq surge different from previous deployments was its context. In the November 2006 elections, Democrats trounced Republicans, picking up thirty-one seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate, giving Democrats control of both houses of Congress. Many analysts described the elections as a referendum on the Iraq war. "The 2006 midterm elections look like a referendum on Iraq, a war in which President Bush and his party have lost not just the political center but significant chunks of their base," opined ABC News, in just one example.
The result emboldened Iraqi insurgents, who saw continued U.S. commitment as tenuous. I watched Iran's al-Alam and Hezbollah al-Manar television, both Arabic language service beamed into Iraq, which broadcast footage of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, American Marines leaving Beirut in 1983, and U.S. forces fleeing Somalia in 1993. Such broadcasts sought to imply that the United States lacked staying power.
Hence the importance of Bush's January 2007 speech: "America must succeed in Iraq," the president said, announcing deployment of another 20,000 troops. "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have," Bush explained. He then defined victory: "Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world—a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people." Nowhere did Bush speak of withdrawal.
It is true, as Schlesinger points out, that Obama did not set a date for the completion of the withdrawal, but he signaled its finite nature. And herein lays the problem. The reason Obama spoke of a deadline was not to pressure Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai but rather to assuage constituencies in the United States increasingly wary of open-ended U.S. involvement in the country. But in the Middle East and South Asia, perception matters far more than reality.
Diplomatic affairs expert Omar Sharifi, speaking on Afghan television, declared, "Today the Afghans unfortunately lost the game and failed to get a long-term commitment from the international community." Likewise, Afghan political analyst Ahmad Sayedi observed, "When the USA sets a timeline of 18 months for troop withdraw, this by itself boosts the morale of the opponents and makes them less likely to take any step towards reconciliation."
It is absolutely correct to say that Obama did not say that all—or even a significant fraction—of U.S. troops would withdraw in July 2011, but this is what was heard not only by U.S. allies and adversaries in Afghanistan but also by the governments and media in regional states such as Pakistan, Iran, and even Russia.
Indeed, it appears Obama's advisors recognized their error and scrambled to clarify. Speaking on Meet the Press, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline." On December 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the withdrawal would "probably" take two to three years but that "there are no deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out." He made an unannounced visit to Kabul to underline his message. Sayed Masud, a lecturer at Kabul University, spoke of how Obama's announcement "was a big mistake" that had weakened the morale of Afghan forces, which until then had been on the upswing.
Rationalizing that the deadline would force Karzai to better govern is not credible. Indeed, while Schlesinger cites U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry's opposition to the troop surge, President Obama himself appears to have dismissed the substance of Eikenberry's cable.
The problem with the logic that a firm deadline pressures positively Karzai's government is that it assumes that Washington and Kabul are alone in the sandbox. The fact remains, however, that Karzai has no shortage of potential foreign partners whose outlook may sharply diverge from U.S. interests. Indeed, the reason why Karzai was such an attractive figure at the December 2001 Bonn Conference was he was the one Afghan leader who could talk to all sides. For a short period of time, in the mid-1990s, he had even allied himself with the Taliban.
While I certainly agree with Schlesinger that it is important to lever all aspects of U.S. power to nudge Karzai in the right direction, Washington must recognize that Karzai has other options. Obama and Karzai have had a tense relationship dating back to Obama's days as a senator. During a July 2008 trip to Afghanistan, Obama chided Karzai for failure to promote good governance. "I told President Karzai that I thought that he needs to really focus on issues of corruption and counternarcotics and to counter the narcotics trade much more aggressively than has been done so far," Obama said. After winning the Democratic Party's nomination, Obama blasted Karzai in the second presidential debate, declaring, "We have to have a government that is responsive to the Afghan people, and frankly it's just not responsive right now." Shortly before Joe Biden became vice president, a meeting with Karzai grew so tense that Biden stormed out of the meeting.
It was in this context that, even before Obama launched his policy review, Karzai began considering other options. Shortly after Obama's victory, Karzai suggested that if the White House did not like his policy—in this case outreach to Mullah Omar—they could simply leave Afghanistan. Likewise, speaking to a visiting United Nations Security Council team, Karzai himself called for a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. When Karzai makes such statements to increase pressure on Washington, it holds that U.S. threats along the same vein backfire.
Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and even China are willing to move in at Karzai's invitation and fill any vacuum the U.S. leaves behind. I'm not as sanguine as Schlesinger that any of Afghanistan's neighbors would ever involve themselves positively from a standpoint of U.S. national interests.
Pakistani behavior has already changed for the worse as a result of Obama's deadline. Some analysts on Pakistani television pointed out how Obama's deadline would embolden the Taliban, while others said, at the very least, the July 2011 benchmark would lead policymakers to base decisions on an artificial deadline rather than on-the-ground reality.
While Pakistani authorities had previously been reluctant to approach the Taliban, after Obama announced the finite U.S. commitment, Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, offered to mediate directly with the Taliban. According to The New York Times, "Pakistani officials familiar with General Kayani's thinking said that even as the United States adds troops to Afghanistan, he has determined that the Americans are looking for a fast exit."
Obama's deadline for withdrawal snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. He emboldened Afghanistan's adversaries and undermined the chance for U.S. success. His advisers engaged in projection—assuming that adversaries' calculations and thought processes would mirror their own. Rather than pressure Karzai to embrace better governance, with one throw-away line, Obama did the opposite.
It is not too late for the President to recognize the psychological aspect of the surge and state clearly that he will settle for nothing less than victory. Unfortunately, until he does, U.S. servicemen on the frontlines will pay the price.