In December 2009, President Barack Obama ordered a surge force of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, hoping to stabilize the country and set the groundwork for a gradual US exit. While the President was judicious in considering multiple options, the plan he decided on was based on questionable strategic logic. Stabilization of Afghanistan was not a critical US interest, and even if it was, the surge that Obama ordered was structured in a way that portended failure.
Deciding on a Plan
At the beginning of Obama’s first term in 2009, the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. Obama was under intense pressure from civilian foreign policy hawks and the uniformed military to act decisively and prevent the United States from “losing the war.” The President was conflicted. Just months earlier on the campaign trail, he stated that “as President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”[i] However, he was clearly opposed to an enduring commitment. Obama campaigned against the Iraq War, citing the strain on both the military and US taxpayers.[ii] He viewed the war in Afghanistan as more important than Iraq—an Al Qaeda presence there would be a serious threat to US security, he argued—yet still sought an acceptable exit plan. While visiting a group of wounded soldiers, the President was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years.”[iii]
Despite mounting pressure, Obama refused to commit to any course of action too quickly. Countless hours were spent reviewing strategic goals, questioning assumptions, and debating policy alternatives. Initially, the Commander of US Forces Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presented three surge options: 1) 10,000 additional troops to train the Afghan military and police; 2) 40,000 additional troops to carry out a counterinsurgency operation and protect the population; and 3) 85,000 additional troops, also for population-centric counterinsurgency.[iv] The military approached the problem primarily at the tactical level, evaluating how additional soldiers could contribute to population-centric counterinsurgency, but not how population-centric counterinsurgency would contribute to US interests and political objectives. According to Hew Stachan, “McChrystal’s strategy, as he presented it at the end of August 2009, was shaped from the bottom up; without a clear articulation by NATO or the United States of their political objectives and hence of their strategy, it could not be anything else.”[v]
As the President continued to push the military and his advisors for additional options, a division emerged. On one side were those who supported a large military deployment that would carry out population-centric counterinsurgency, led by McChrystal and backed by, among others, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Commander of US Central Command General David Petraeus. On the other side were those who advocated a narrower military deployment geared toward counterterrorism operations, headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Along those lines, two compromise options emerged. Biden, with the help of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General James Cartwright, proposed sending 20,000 additional troops—10,000 for counterterrorism and 10,000 for training the Afghan army.[vi] The alternative, which was fashioned by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, called for 30,000 additional US troops that would focus on both training and population-centric counterinsurgency.[vii]
In the end, the President sided with Gates’ option. However, he also stayed true to his preference for a gradual exit and insisted that the surge come with a withdrawal timetable. On December 1, 2009, Obama announced his decision at West Point and implied that, given the stakes, he had appropriately matched means to ends:
“I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”[viii]
Despite their differences during the review process, all of Obama’s advisors supported the compromise.
Initially, the decision was fairly well received and allowed the President to move in the direction of what appeared to be his preferred policy—a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan—at minimal political cost. However, a closer evaluation reveals reasons to be critical. The plan the troops were sent to carry out—reversing the tide of the insurgency through population-centric operations—was disconnected from appropriate U.S interests. Furthermore, the inclusion of a withdrawal date meant that, even if the campaign goals were in fact important, the operation would be rushed and have little chance of achieving long-term results.
Was Afghan Stabilization a Vital US Interest?
In order to conclude that a continued operation and increased troop presence in Afghanistan were worth it, President Obama would had to have determined that the benefits, measured in terms of guarding U.S interests, outweighed several obvious costs. Additional US soldiers would be deployed, risking their own lives and putting untold strain on their families. The US military would continue to be entangled in a stability operation, rather than spending its time and effort on other pressing priorities and investing its resources in the next generation of weapons. The federal budget, already under pressure from rising deficits, would be increasingly stretched.
In his announcement, Obama laid out three primary objectives that the United States would pursue in Afghanistan: 1) “deny al Qaeda a safe haven;” 2) “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government;” and 3) “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government.”[ix] To do nothing would mean that the Taliban continued to gain territory in Afghanistan, increasingly threatening the rule of the government of Hamid Karzai.
Underlying the objectives that President Obama laid out were three US interests.[x] First, the United States had an interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again emerging as an Al Qaeda safe haven where terrorists plan and train for attacks against the United States. Second, the United States had an interest in maintaining its international reputation; if the United States allowed the Taliban to “win,” it would harm its credibility, fuel increased Al Qaeda recruiting, and cause other US allies and partners to question US commitments. The third US interest in Afghanistan was preventing instability and extremism from spilling over into Pakistan; in the worst case scenario, Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda would get control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. For these reasons, President Obama and others described Afghanistan as a war of necessity, rather than choice.
However, the connection between each of these interests and a strategy of using the American armed forces to preserve stability in Afghanistan and prevent the overthrow of the Karzai government was questionable at best. First, if, as most would admit, the primary US interest in Afghanistan was preventing terrorism, there were a number of alternative strategies that the administration could have pursued. President Obama could have gradually removed all US ground troops from the country, unworried about stability, and worked to contain the threat of terrorism from offshore—similar to the US policy in Somalia. Less dramatically, the President could have reduced US ground troops in Afghanistan while using drones and commandoes for targeted counterterrorism missions—a strategy similar to what Biden and Cartwright proposed. There is a debate about which strategy could have most effectively prevented terrorism, but ultimately a strategy centered on stabilization of Afghanistan was a choice, not an obligation.
Moreover, there are three main reasons that the President should have narrowed US objectives in Afghanistan to counterterrorism, rather than stabilization. First, as the administration was no doubt aware, the United States had already expanded the use of drone operations to kill Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the policy was showing signs of success. The United States killed so many top-level operatives that it was hard for Al Qaeda to replace them.[xi] Second, the presence of US troops in Afghanistan had spurred more terrorism, not less. According to Robert Pape who studied the motivation of suicide terrorists and tracked attacks in Afghanistan, “The picture is clear: the more Western troops we have sent to Afghanistan, the more the local residents have viewed themselves as under foreign occupation, leading to a rise in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.”[xii] Perhaps just as important, the presence of US troops made the United States, rather than rival warlords and tribes, the target of terrorism and insurgency. Without this motivation, terrorist groups would have little if any incentive to plan attacks on the US homeland. Third, the worst case scenario—where the Karzai government fell and the Taliban returned to power—posed at most a marginal threat to the United States. Even a rejuvenated Taliban would be unlikely to once again give sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and, if it did, Al Qaeda would have difficulty planning another operation from Afghanistan with the United States now adequately alert.[xiii] Worries that the Taliban would support extremists in Pakistan were similarly overblown.
The second justification for a vital US interest in Afghan stability was also suspect. Pundits often pressure US leaders to continue supporting failing military adventures by citing risks to credibility and resolve. A prominent example is the US war in Vietnam, where the United States repeatedly doubled down on a failing operation to preserve its reputation. In the end, the United States was forced to disengage, certainly perceived as “losing,” but did not see a tangible decline in its international power. Academic studies about the importance of reputation, including its ability to influence militant Islamist actors, highlight the concept’s limits.[xiv]
The arguments that instability in Afghanistan would ensure instability in Pakistan and that imposed stability in Afghanistan would contribute to stability in Pakistan were equally tenuous. In December 2009, Al Qaeda was located primarily in Pakistan, and stability in Afghanistan would have done little if anything to limit its influence in the country. Additional US troops in Afghanistan were likely to make the problem worse by pushing more militants across the 340 border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan.[xv] Beyond displacing insurgents, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson concluded that additional US troop deployments would create resentment in Pakistan, further damaging US credibility. They write, “While a larger US military footprint might help stabilize Afghanistan in the short term, the effects of collateral damage and the aura of US domination it would generate would also intensify anti-Americanism in Pakistan.”[xvi]
Was Population-Centric Counterinsurgency Likely to Achieve Its Objectives?
In surging 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, President Obama wagered that a better-resourced population-centric counterinsurgency strategy was likely to stabilize Afghanistan over the long run. To be worth the cost, Obama’s strategy had to have a reasonable chance of reversing the momentum of the Taliban insurgency, while at the same time preparing the Afghan government to take on a greater role in protecting the country’s security. If, alternatively, population-centric counterinsurgency had little chance of ensuring long-term stability in Afghanistan, then it would only serve to delay an inevitable Taliban takeover, resulting in all of the impacts that the policy was designed to prevent.
According to President Obama, the surge had three main elements: “a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”[xvii] A central component of the US plan was the military effort, which would clear areas of Taliban insurgents, hold the territory by protecting the population, and then subsequently transition control of security to the Afghani military and police. Obama’s policy assumed that, by July 2011, two conditions would be met: 1) the United States would have reversed the momentum of the Taliban insurgency; and 2) the Afghani military and army would be strong enough to start taking over part of the security responsibility.
In Afghanistan, President Obama hoped to repeat a formula that had worked for President George W. Bush in Iraq. Unfortunately, many of the conditions that allowed the surge to succeed in Iraq were not present in Afghanistan. First, in Iraq, the United States was dealing with a far stronger and more cooperative leader in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Karzai, by contrast, had demonstrated that he was either unable or unwilling to rein in challengers to his regime.[xviii] In his broad study of counterinsurgency David Kilcullen highlights the importance of finding a host government that the people are willing to support. Without it, tactical gains will not translate to policy outcomes.[xix] Second, in Iraq, the United States was able to take advantage of divisions between Sunni factions and Islamic extremists. In Afghanistan, there was little evidence that ethnic Pashtuns would be willing to abandon the Taliban and side with the United States.[xx] Finally, insurgents in Iraq did not have a territorial sanctuary like the Taliban had in Pakistan.[xxi]
Moreover, Obama greatly hamstrung the operation by including a specific date at which US troops would begin to withdraw. Walter Russell Mead was particularly harsh when he wrote, “Obama’s long deliberation over the war in Afghanistan is a case study in presidential schizophrenia: After 94 days of internal discussion and debate, he ended up splitting the difference—rushing in more troops as his generals wanted, while calling for their departure to begin in July 2011 as his liberal base demanded.”[xxii] While the compromise had political benefit—allowing Obama to move toward a withdrawal from Afghanistan while seeming to go along with the recommendation of his military advisors—it made the surge less likely to succeed.
President Obama confused the mission. The contradictory messages—increased troops but a definitive withdrawal deadline—were interpreted differently by varying officials and military personnel: some thought the United States was engaged in nation-building, others didn’t; some thought the United States was pursuing population-centric counterinsurgency, others didn’t; and some thought the United States would withdrawal a substantial portion of its troops in July 2011, others didn’t. As a result, there was no coherent policy, and the military went forward with their original plan: to seize territory being held by the Taliban.[xxiii] As Bing West puts it, “By declaring an ambiguous mission, the president had positioned himself brilliantly as a politician. His Delphic statements left open his options. That same uncertainty harmed the military mission.”[xxiv]
In announcing that the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, President Obama hoped to signal to the US military and the Afghan government that the US commitment would not be enduring, impelling them to make necessary preparations for a transition. Both audiences received the message, but, unfortunately, it had a number of negative side effects.
Knowing that the withdrawal deadline was close, the US military rushed to build an Afghan capacity that would be sufficient to provide for the country’s security as US troops began to leave. The Untied States set an ambitious goal of recruiting and training 352,000 Afghani soldiers and police officers. However, the effort to quickly expand the force resulted in corner cutting. Not surprisingly, the troops and police were inadequately trained, remained reliant on the Untied States for intelligence and logistical support, and, worst of all, had their ranks infiltrated by Taliban insurgents.[xxv] At the same time, a number of the old problems with the army remained: literacy rates were low; soldiers were divided by regional and ethnic rivalries; and too many troops deserted.[xxvi] In a parallel attempt to quickly turn the momentum of the Taliban insurgency, the United States empowered local militias. These groups were effective, but are now well armed and exist outside of the control of the government.[xxvii] More worrisome, the local militias are divided along traditional regional and ethnic lines, making a civil war likely when the United States withdraws.[xxviii]
The withdrawal deadline also sent a negative signal to the Afghani government and Taliban insurgents. Karzai increasingly distrusted the US long-term commitment to the country, making him even less cooperative.[xxix] Taliban insurgents saw an opportunity to lay low in Pakistan and then return to Afghanistan to escalate the insurgency once US troops begin to leave. According to Gideon Rose, creating a withdrawal deadline turns US troops into “lame ducks.” Rather than settling their differences, groups that are vying for power are encouraged to wait out the United States.[xxx] Not surprisingly, Pakistan reacted to the US announcement by increasing its support for proxy insurgent groups in Afghanistan so that it would have more influence as the United States draws down its troop levels.[xxix]
Faced with an extremely difficult decision early in his presidency, President Obama did well to avoid the military request for a costly, open-ended escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Both the President and the country had little appetite for a long-term commitment. However, Obama’s middle ground approach, which combined a continued focus on population-centric counterinsurgency with a withdrawal deadline, was both strategically unnecessary and unlikely to succeed. To best guard US interests, the President should have opted for a smaller military footprint focused on counterterrorism missions rather than a large force for population-centric counterinsurgency. Such a strategy would have offered a politically sustainable way to deal with the core threats to United States—a terrorist attack on the US homeland and extremism in Pakistan—at a lower cost.
[i] Barack Obama, “Obama’s Remarks on Iraq and Afghanistan,” The New York Times, July 15, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/us/politics/15text-obama.html?pagewanted=all.
[iii] Barack Obama, quoted in Peter Baker, “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, December 6, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/world/asia/06reconstruct.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
[iv] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 212-216.
[v] Hew Strachan, “Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 52:5 (2009): 173.
[vi] Woodward, Obama’s Wars, 236-237.
[vii] Ibid., 301-304.
[viii] Barack Obama, “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” United States Military Academy at West Point, December 1, 2009, http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/12/01/i-do-not-make-this-decision-lightly-obama-afghanistan-troop-s/.
[ix] Obama, “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
[x] For more detailed explanations of potential US interests see Frederick W. Kagan, “A Case for Staying the Course,” in Afghanistan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War, ed. Hy Rothstein and John Arquilla (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 97-114 and Stephen Biddle, “Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan,” The American Interest, July/August 2009, http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=617.
[xi] Steven Simon, “Can the Right War be Won? Defining American Interests in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2009), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65159/steven-simon/can-the-right-war-be-won. See also Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Afghanistan: How Much is Enough?” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 51:5 (2009): 54 and Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, “Targeted Killing Is New US Focus in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, July 31, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/world/asia/01afghan.html?pagewanted=all.
[xii] Robert A. Pape, “To Beat the Taliban, Fight From Afar,” The New York Times, October 15, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/opinion/15pape.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print. See also Astri Suhrke, When More is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 54-55.
[xiii] Steven Metz, “America’s Flawed Afghanistan Strategy,” Strategic Studies Institute, August 2010, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/Pubs/display.cfm?pubid=1014.
[xiv] See Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1996) and Vaughn P. Shannon and Michael Dennis, “Militant Islam and the Futile Fight for Reputation,” Security Studies 16:2 (2007): 287-317.
[xv] Namrata Goswami, “The Obama Administration’s Afghanistan–Pakistan Policy: In Need of an Urgent Rethink,” Strategic Analysis 33:4 (2009): 468.
[xvi] Simon and Stevenson, “Afghanistan,” 51.
[xvii] Obama, “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
[xviii] David H. Ucko, “Counterinsurgency after Afghanistan: A Concept in Crisis,” PRISM 3:1 (December 2011): 11.
[xix] David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 208.
[xx] James Gannon, Obama’s War: Avoiding a Quagmire in Afghanistan (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011), 59-72.
[xxii] Walter Russell Mead, “The Carter Syndrome,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2010, http://www.cfr.org/foreign-policy-history/carter-syndrome/p21106.
[xxiii] Bing West, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (New York: Random House, 2012), 189-193.
[xxiv] Ibid., 191.
[xxv] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Afghan security force’s rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags,” The Washington Post, October 20, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/afghan-security-forces-rapid-expansion-comes-at-a-cost-as-readiness-lags/2012/10/20/38af200a-16cb-11e2-a55c-39408fbe6a4b_print.html.
[xxvi] Rudra Chaudhuri and Theo Farrell, “Campaign disconnect: operational progress and strategic obstacles in Afghanistan, 2009-2011,” International Affairs 87:2 (2011): 277-279.
[xxvii] Dexter Filkins, “After America: Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the US leaves?” The New Yorker, July 9, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/07/09/120709fa_fact_filkins
[xxix] Ahmed Rashid, “How Obama Lost Karzai,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/how_obama_lost_karzai.
[xxx] Gideon Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” Foreign Affairs 77:1 (January/February 1998): 56–67.
[xxxi] Chaudhuri and Farrell, “Campaign disconnect,” 291.