Obama Administration Searching for an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago


Raising expectations for scaling back military operations in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he hopes U.S. involvement can “transition to a different phase” after this summer’s Afghan elections.

The president said he is looking for an exit strategy where the Afghan security forces, courts and government take more responsibility for the country’s security. That would enable U.S. and other international military forces to play a smaller role.

Obama made his remarks after an Oval Office meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Talks between the two leaders included discussion of the Netherlands’ help with the U.S.-led effort to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dutch combat troops have been a mainstay among the allied forces fighting in the volatile southern reaches of Afghanistan.

After taking office in January, Obama reviewed U.S. progress in Afghanistan and announced in March a new approach that included sending an additional 17,000 combat troops, including Marines who have just kicked off an offensive in Taliban strongholds in the south of the country …

In remarks in Moscow last week, Obama said it was too early to judge the success of his new approach in Afghanistan because “we have just begun” to implement it. Obama also installed a new U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, in May and a new U.S. military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in June.

On Tuesday, however, the president emphasized an exit strategy.

“All of us want to see an effective exit strategy where increasingly the Afghan army, Afghan police, Afghan courts, Afghan government are taking more responsibility for their own security,” he said.

If the Afghan presidential election scheduled for Aug. 20 comes off successfully, and if the U.S. and its coalition partners continue training Afghan security forces and take a more effective approach to economic development, “then my hope is that we will be able to begin transitioning into a different phase in Afghanistan,” Obama said.

Analysis & Commentary

This is a remarkable report for one particular point we learn about this administration’s view of Operation Enduring Freedom.  But before we get to that point, let’s pause to reflect on the context.

Operation Iraqi Freedom proved to be much more difficult that we originally thought it would be for a whole host of reasons.  There have been many lessons (re)learned about counterinsurgency and nation-building, including the need for national and institutional patience.  It takes a long time and is costly in both wealth and blood.  There is a never-ending need for highly functional lines of logistics, and the chances of an acceptable outcome is (at least in the early and even middle stages) proportional to the force projection, one factor of which is the troop levels.  We have relearned that it is very difficult to rely on Arabic armies in large part because of corruption, incompetence and the lack of a Non-Commissioned Officer corps that is equivalent to the NCO corps in the U.S. armed forces.  It has been documented that this has directly affected the degree of success of the efforts to build an Iraqi Army.

For reasons of difficulty and cost, many believe that the U.S. should not engage in counterinsurgency and nation-building.  As the argument goes, when an existential threat is judged to exist, forcible entry is conducted, the regime is toppled, and U.S. forces leave to let the population sort out the balance of its history.  If this threat returns or another is perceived, then do it all over again.  While the cost of this approach is likely to be greater in the long run (in our estimation), there are a great many who hold this view, even among field grade and staff level officers (based our own on communications).

But when a counterinsurgency campaign is begun, not only does the doctrine say that it will be protracted, but this doctrine is exemplified by our experience in Iraq.  While continually adjusting strategy and tactics to press forward to a conclusion is appropriate, it doesn’t work to assume that it will be easy or shortlived.

But there are differences in campaigns for which the doctrine must be maleable.  As we have discussed before, General Petraeus has said that of the campaigns in the long war, Afghanistan would be the longest.

I did a week-long assessment in 2005 at (then Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s request. Following our return, I told him that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of what we then termed “the long war.” Having just been to Afghanistan a month or so ago, I think that that remains a valid assessment. Moreover, the trends have clearly been in the wrong direction.

This is true for numerous reasons, including the difficulty in logistics, lack of a strong central government, corruption, an increasingly problematic security situation, etc.  If Hamid Karzai wins the election, the very head of the government in which the U.S. administration is placing its hope is the man who recently pardoned five heroin smugglers, at least one of them a relative of a man who heads Karzai’s campaign for re-election.

The administration’s plan falls heavily into the lap of the Afghan National Army.  This is the same Army that is believed to have colluded with Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops at the Battle of Bari Alai, and which, according to U.S. Marine embedded trainers, would lose as much as 85% of its troops if drug testing was implemented.  Fully independent ANA Battalions are targeted, but this is many years down the road, in the year 2014 at the earliest.  Even this may be wishful thinking.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Obama had advocated complete withdrawal, although we would have disagreed with this decision.  It wouldn’t have been surprising if he had advocated long term commitment, since this is the nature of counterinsurgency.  When we pressed for the resignation of National Security Advisor Jim Jones, we noted that he had stated that the new strategy had the “potential to turn this thing around in reasonably short order.”

Nothing happens in counterinsurgency in short order, we observed, and thus his counsel to the President is poor.  The Generals are indignant, and have retained the right in their mind to request the troops they believe to be necessary for the campaign.  But this view has not been heard in Washington, and not only does Obama’s counselors and advisers believe that the campaign can be turned in short order, but we now learn that Obama believes this – contrary to doctrine, contrary to the views of General Petraeus, contrary to the Generals, and contrary to the lessons of Iraq.  Everyone wants an exit from war.  No one likes to see the human cost of battle.  The question is not one of exit – it is of when and how?

While issues of life and death play themselves out in Afghanistan and sons of America continue to lose limbs and lives, the administration blythely continues to believe in myths and fairly tales concerning war and peace, and fashion plans for Afghanistan that have no chance to succeed.  The plans must change, but until they do, the question is what the cost will be in national treasure and blood?

Prior Featured:

Calling on National Security Advisor James L. Jones to Resign

Marines Take the Fight to the Enemy in Now Zad

Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

The Coming War in the Caucasus

  • TSAlfabet

    Hate to brag, but I called this one. As soon as Obama announced that the max force level would be 68,000 troops, it was obvious that he was not interested in anything resembling victory but only in political cover.

    Captain, please do not expend even a single volt of mental energy trying to figure out or speculate about what Obama “really” believes about Afghanistan (or about anything else in God’s green earth). He is not complicated. Even more than most politicians, he cares about one thing: raw, unchallenged power, wielded at his own, unfettered discretion.

    So, let’s apply this to Afghanistan. Does anyone seriously believe that Obama is willing to take any political risks here? Most of his political base hates America, hates the U.S. military and everything connected to projection of power. He knows, however, that his base is too small to keep him in power, so he must fool ENOUGH of the rest of us that he will not be seriously challenged. His approach to A-stan is a simple, naked political calculation: how can I get out of here and end this thing without angering too much of the American voting public, i.e., the center-right majority?

    Step one was approving an increase that was not enough to do much good in actuality but could be pointed to as evidence of his commitment to the real fight against terror (as opposed to what he called “the distraction” in Iraq). An additional 17,000 troops will not result in anyone complaining about long deployments or breaking the military. And most people are just not paying attention to the need for far more troops.

    Step two is now setting up the expectation that we are leaving and it is just a matter of finding the right exit strategy. Note that his exit strategy involves training Afghans to do the fighting (not a bad thing in itself but as you point out something that will not bear fruit for many years). This is the same as Bush/Rumsfeld pursued in Iraq up until the Surge in 2007. It won’t work any better than it did in Iraq (as you pointed out so well).

    Step three will be ever increasing casualties and a careful media campaign which Obama will orchestrate with his pets in the MSM to point out both the impossibility of the situation in A-stan AND (most importantly) the incredible nuance and subtlety that Obama brings to the situation in getting us out of the mess. The media will be very careful to blame Bush for the mess and praise Obama for making the best of a terrible situation. Military types will be trotted out to say that A-stan is a quagmire and to call for immediate pull-outs and hand-overs to the Afghan Army and police (as if it were possible). Anyone in the active military who dares to expose this dispicable charade will be destroyed withouth mercy.

    As for the kill-the-cancer-and-leave approach versus nation building/COIN, the major drawback to the first approach is that we give up any chance of gaining a strong ally. If either Bush or Obama had any sense, they would have done far more to support regime change in Iran. We would have a strong ally in Iraq and Iran and the entire Middle East calculus would be radically different.

    Expect a rapid collapse of the Afghan government in the next 12 months and a nuclear Iran before July 2010. We could be looking at another disgraceful Saigon exit before next year. Elections have consequences afterall.

  • James Harris

    In general, I agree with this article, as well as most of the other articles usually presented on this site.

    I’ve read this site with interest for some time; and I’ve some questions that “leap out,” which hopefully some learned person can answer for me:

    Recent articles and videos herein (and elsewhere) say:

    — The Afghan National Army is not worth much.
    — The Police are worse.
    — Most of the above are drug addicts and corrupt.
    — In one video, an Afghan leader says that the ANA soldiers are mostly
    village rejects.
    — And yet, Afghans are supposed to be the great fighters that have
    defeated empires, etc. (Personally, I think that statement is probably an
    oversimplification of history; but that is an argument for another post on
    another day.)

    My questions, in the context of the above, are:
    1. Why are our enemies seemingly more disciplined than our friends?
    2. Why are we just getting the “rejects?”
    3. Who is training our enemies and where? Who’s funding it? Arming it?”
    4. If the Afghans in general are such great fighters by nature, why do they
    put up with bullying by the Taliban? It seems to me that a “fighter” would
    get very pissed at bullying aimed at him; get together with the neighbors,
    and kick some ass. Afghans are supposed to have many fairly
    decent “country armorors and gun smiths,” and they are supposed to be
    an armed people. In short, why can’t they protect themselves?
    5. What upbringing and experiences supposedly make the Afghan more
    formidable than anyone else who lives a “hard scrabble” existence? What
    are we missing if the training doesn’t “take?”
    6. Is this generation of Afghans different in culture and fighting qualities than
    those that fought the Soviets? (I’m not so sure the Soviets might not
    have stuck it out and won, just as we could’ve won in Vietnam.)
    7. It sounds like most of the Taliban action is occurring in a few troublesome
    places. Are other places actually doing well? Educating everyone,
    including women/girls? What is the situation in Herat? The Panjeer
    Valley, or other Tajik areas? Mazar E Sharif? Etc.?
    8. The Taliban were able to shut down the poppy/drug trade (instead of
    profiting from it, as they are now). What did they do/have that we/our
    side does not?

    These same kinds of questions were asked about Iraqis, and Vietnamese before that. In the case of Iraqis, if it has been so hard to make them competant over the last 7-8 years (and still working), how did they succeed in making any showing at all against the Iranians? What does that say about the Iranians? (I’m generally impressed with most Iranians I know; but they should’ve beaten Saddam/the Iraqis fairly quickly, for that reason.) Did “we” really wreck so much in three weeks (March 2003), or was it a house-of-cards ready to implode anyway?

    Hope I asked all this right. Somebody with on-the-ground as well as historical perspective please make me smart. Thanks in advance.

    Jim H.

  • James Harris


    The same questions were also asked about The Contras, Haitians, and others we have supported.

    What is discouraging is, that even when our causes are moral — which is most of the time, in my view — our supporters or client actors seem to be less noble than our enemies. This perception may be just a liberal-leaning press — and I’m inclined to believe that. But, one of the problems with supporting insurgents, counter insurgents, governments, or any other group as client actors is that they may/usually do seem to embarrass us. Even the Bosnians and Kosovars, of recent victim status, turn out to be at least as scummy as those we opposed. (They support Muslims extremists in thanks for our efforts for them, burn churches, traffic in drugs and women, … etc.)

    It’s ALMOST enough to turn you into a Pat Buchannan/William Lind isolationist of the 4th generation religious cult.

  • TSAlfabet

    Great questions, Mr. Harris.

    I will not attempt to answer them as I do not have the expertise.

    Instead I will offer one overall prediction which pertains to the temptations of Buchannanism.

    In short, the West is living in a carefully constructed and meticulously nurtured fantasy world in which good intentions count as much as actual results and fallen human nature has been healed and cured. There is no more evil in the world. All can be reconciled if we simply talk it over. Most of the West has bought into the lie (perpetuated upon ourselves, ironically) that the kind of cataclysmic wars of the 20th century were exceptions rather than the rule.

    In essence we in the West are playing games with half-measures and political expedience, putting layer upon layer of plaster over the ever-growing cracks in the dike and pretending that this can go on forever. But the time is coming, perhaps sooner than later, when the dike gives way and we will be faced with basic questions of survival, where the West either rages against the Tide with every bit of strength we have or we are drowned.

    If we are a lucky, the Enemy will strike less than a lethal blow… another 9-11 that wounds but does not kill. In that case, we wake up (again) and somehow find the collective will to unleash the full fury of our nation against the Enemy, this time without mercy, without political correctness and without advance consultations and self-imposed restraints.

    If we are not so lucky, the Enemy wounds so severely that we cannot effectively fight back and we are left scraping to survive. The nationwide EMP strike visualized in “One Second After” is illustrative.

    We like to say that we are at war, but we know that it is just semantics. Real war is terrible and final and, like Sherman and Patton knew, we must make it so terrible for the Enemy that they will never think of raising their hand to strike again. Why have Germany and Japan not risen up again to become threats to world peace? Their defeat was so horrible and costly that, even generations later, they cannot contemplate the thought of a war of aggression. They were thoroughly beaten. Something we have not accomplished since 1945 against any adversary. The results are self-evident.

    Maybe there is some sense in a Fortress America insofar as we protect against the cataclysmic attacks against our homeland while readying ourselves for the occasional sorties from the walls in order to protect our vital interests and punish dangerous gangs. Perhaps we are just wasting blood and treasure with this game in Afghanistan, where we send a ridiculously insufficient number of troops for the job. We are not seeking victory, we are looking for an exit strategy. Fortress America looks like a good alternative from this perspective.

    Either way, in the near future, all of these debates will be academic. The U.S. will either summon the will to go to war and win, or we will cease to be.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Afghanistan,Featured,Obama Administration and was published July 15th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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