Obama Administration Searching for an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 8 months ago

Report

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

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5 Comments on "Obama Administration Searching for an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan"

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TSAlfabet
Member
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… Read more »
James Harris
Member
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?” etc.? 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… Read more »
James Harris
Member

ADDENDUM TO ABOVE:

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
Member
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… Read more »
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The Captain’s Journal » The Sorry State of the Afghan National Police

[…] Obama is searching for an exit strategy from Afghanistan, the cornerstone apparently being the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.  Given the pitiful state of the ANA and the problems with the Afghan National Police we have seen here, his exit strategy is worse than mere wishful thinking.  It’s deceptive.  Afghanistan will be the longest campaign of the long war. […]

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You are currently reading "Obama Administration Searching for an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan", entry #3389 on The Captain's Journal.

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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