Commentary-Afghan Rationale

Obama’s Afghan Surge Rationale: 

Unintended Consequences 

In insisting he was determined that 30,000 additional troops would help reverse the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and give the government of President Hamid Karzai a chance to prevail, President Barak Obama stressed, however, that starting in July 2011 he intended to begin a force drawdown. 

While it was clearly not his intention, he sent the wrong message to two key players in the regional struggle: Pakistan’s military establishment and Afghan Taliban leaders. 

Obama did not rush to decision. He spent three long months thinking through his strategic options. 

Administration officials explained that the start of a drawdown in 18 months was designed to convince Karzai that he had a limited window in which to both augment his own army to begin to take responsibility for its own self-defense and, more importantly, to begin to clean up corruption throughout his government in order to build support among the Afghan people. 

But if that was his principal objective, he could have passed that message privately, perhaps by sending the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense to deliver the message personally and pointedly. 

Rather, the July 2011 start of a drawdown was more likely aimed at assuaging those in Obama’s political base who are tiring of the war.  He was signaling that notwithstanding the troop augmentation, he is not committed to an open-ended struggle.  July 2011 thus marks the beginning of an exit strategy. 

The unintended message to Pakistan is that the Americans are tiring of the costly war and aching to back away. But Pakistan is strategically important to the United States, while Afghanistan is not. 

The argument that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would allow Al Qaeda to reestablish bases there and once again train and plan terrorist raids against the US is not compelling, since it is doing that now in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. 

If Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders conclude that once again the US is preparing to abandon the region, as it did after the Russian defeat in Afghanistan, they have no incentive to stop keeping up covert alliances with the Afghan Taliban who may eventually regain control of much of the country on their western border. 

They are apprehensive that India is trying to establish influence in Afghanistan and the Taliban there would more likely lean toward Pakistan which has helped its movement for years. 

Pakistani forces are pursuing a campaign against the  home-grown Pakistani Taliban and associated jihadists because they have belatedly concluded that they represent an existential threat. And if the jihad extremists were able to topple the shaky Pakistani government,  they could conceivably secure control of its nuclear arsenal. 

Without doubt, then, that’s why Pakistan’s future is strategically more important to the United States than Afghanistan’s. 

The July 2011 date also is likely being interpreted by the Afghan Taliban as a signal that the Obama Administration is losing patience and will before too long be looking for an excuse to withdraw.  As they have been whispering to our folks on the ground:  “You have the watches, but we have the time.” 

In some respects this is reminiscent of the Nixon Administration’s decision in 1969 to launch a B-52 saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnamese weapons and troop concentrations in what had previously been treated at a sanctuary in Cambodia. 

The strategic objective was to convince Hanoi that President Nixon was much tougher than his predecessors and was willing to apply heavy force where previously the US had been unwilling to do so. 

But the fact that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, went to extraordinary lengths to keep the US Congress and the American public in the dark about this bombing campaign–insisting the bombs were falling inside South Vietnam–must have convinced the North Vietnamese that the US believed the war was so unpopular that if the Administration was up front about its escalation it would be forced to desist. 

Thus Hanoi had merely to wait us out and the Americans would find a way to disengage.  That’s precisely what happened. We had the watches, but they had the time. 

(For more detail on that period of history, see my blog on the subject.)

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4 responses to “Commentary-Afghan Rationale

  1. If you buy into two ideas, there may be reason to consider another perspective with regard to bringing “enemy combatants” into our justice system. The first idea is that the US brand of justice is held in high regard around the globe. The second idea is that that brand was damaged by Bush/Cheney. If you buy that then it may be a reasonable strategy to repair our reputation by demonstrating to the world that our brand of justice is actully being practiced. It would also support a strategy to win over skeptics and begin to build better allies within the muslim world and utilize those resources to erode Taliban and Al Qadea support and complacency around the globe. If you believe that this strategy will accomplish more than continued military tribunals then there is basis for understanding such actions by the Obama administration.

    • Thought provoking, but I’m sorry but I disagree. For one thing, the Obama Administration continues to hold that some cases will to to military tribunals. Secondly, I doubt that jihadists will be persuaded we ride on white horses because we give some terrorists Constitutional protections. Rather, I suspect, they’ll see that as a weakness–to exploit. They look at things through a differenc cultural prism than we do.

  2. I agree that jihadists will not be persuaded. My reference was to the larger universe of global allies that can help the US build a better foundation for fighting terrorists. I do not pretend to know anything about Al Qadea’s cultural prisim but it seems logical to engage strategies that reach out to those that might influence our ability to contain them.

  3. I’m afraid we have to agree to disagree. Given the prejudgement statements of both President Obama and his attorney general on the KSM case, I doubt any other gpvernmemts would regard the trial as anything but a PR sham.

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