Sneaking Toward the Exit
Recent decisions in the US approach to Afghanistan make clear a troubling disjunction: In our policy choices, we are pulling apart our strategic interests from Afghanistan’s social and political fate; and yet in our political rhetoric and national strategy, we remain committed to much more ambitious goals. This mismatch promises trouble on some future day—a day, for example, when America sustains a terrorist attack directed from an Afghanistan that has spiraled out of control as America disentangles itself.
How else but strategic disengagement can one interpret Secretary of Defense Panetta’s announcement that US troops would be out of a combat role by mid-2013? The statement was depicted as a big move toward ending the war, and in some quarters as a rushed step toward doing so. “Americans,” the Times said in describing the shift, “would no longer be carrying out large numbers of patrols to clear vast areas of Afghanistan of insurgents, or holding villages and towns vulnerable to militant attacks while local forces and government agencies rebuilt the local economy and empowered local governments. Those tasks would fall to Afghan forces.”
In other words: US-led counterinsurgency is out. US ownership of nation-building is out. Afghan ownership of both is in, backed by US training and selected strikes and raids. This sounds like the strategy on offer in a recent CNAS report by David Barno and Andrew Exum; it echoes, too, the “counterterrorism-plus” approach suggested by Vice President Biden from pretty much the beginning of the administration. This line of thinking rejects an absolutist narrative on the war, which might be termed the “Vital Interest and Essential Victory” narrative: Afghanistan is the epicenter of extremism; the only way to control terrorism is with regional stability; a stable Afghanistan and the control of the Taliban is therefore a vital interest, and we must Dig In and Win.
But it’s been obvious for years that the Vital Interest and Essential Victory narrative is bankrupt. We can’t just “dig in and win”: US and allied domestic opinion won’t allow it—and neither, in fact, will the increasingly resentful Afghan people, no matter what the latest semi-misleading “public opinion” poll seems to suggest. There is no prospect that Afghan governance will catch up to the requirements of this approach on anything like the timeline we require. Pakistan’s interests aren’t ours, and as long as it wants to keep offering safe havens, we don’t Get There from Here.
The practical evidence of all of this is much in evidence, if one wants to look past the “surge has given us momentum” hopefulness. Dozens of reports make clear (including some very good recent ones by David Axe at Wired’s Danger Room) the mixed results and unintended consequences of local police training programs and local strongman partnerships. Lt. Col. Daniel Davis has become the most recent of a number of contrarians to challenge the official line of progress. Just about everyone closely in touch with social and political trends talks of a situation accelerating into factionalism, self-interest, even possibly civil war. We’re putting our faith in the ANSF as the institution to hold stability together, but desertion rates are running at annualized levels up to 30 percent or more, and a mid-2010 Crisis Group report concluded that “Nine years after the fall of the Taliban. … [T]he army is a fragmented force, serving disparate interests, and far from attaining the unified national character needed to confront numerous security threats.”
So: Ten years into the war, as we launch ourselves into transition with the platitudes of Bonn ringing forcefully in our ears, the perils of generalized instability as the American role recedes are immense. Sensing this as early as 2009, the administration seemed to have firmly rejected the Vital Interest and Essential Victory narrative in favor of one that might be described as the Limit Your Losses paradigm: The Taliban is so integrated into Afghan society, and broken into so many shards, that you won’t beat, or negotiate, it into submission on a reliable time scale. We don’t have the staying power for a traditional “victory.” Al Qaeda is the objective, not nation building.
This was the message of Woodward’s book. At one point Woodward quotes Marine General James Conway; “Don’t subscribe to long-term nation building,” Conway urges the president. In Woodward’s words, “Obama could not agree more.” Conway continued, “There are things we couldn’t fix in our lifetime. We have to train the forces and hand it over.” Later Woodward quotes Obama: “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan. … There cannot be any wiggle room. It has to be clear that this is what we’re doing.”
The surge, in other words, was not about “victory”—it was a staging point to exit, a way to buy the ANSF some time before we began our inexorable drawdown. Which all makes sense—if one rejects the Vital Interest and Essential Victory narrative.
Unfortunately, here’s where things grow confused—because the administration has also endorsed the intellectual foundations of that narrative, quite vigorously and repeatedly, for years.
Candidate Obama, for example, in 2008 promised to “heed the call from General McKiernan and others for more troops.” Afghanistan, candidate Obama said 2008, “is a war that we have to win.” Once in office, his March 2009 review of Afghan strategy pronounced that “Al Qaeda and its allies—the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks—are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban—or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged—that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
So while the objective of the strategy was limited (“disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan”), the strategy critically argued that achieving the narrow objective was inextricably tied to accomplishing broader ends—stabilization as a means to counterterrorism. Obama rejected a “counterterrorism-plus” option and endorsed fairly ambitious COIN. “To achieve our goals,” he said, “we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy.” We could not fail, because “The safety of people around the world is at stake.”
In December 2009, President Obama announced the result of yet another “review of strategy,” the one captured by the Woodward narrative. And while the policy clearly reflected his goal of transition, the rhetoric and strategy remained in support of vital interests in general stabilization. “I make this decision,” he said in announcing it, “because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. … And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity.”
This other half of the administration’s brain is present in Woodward, too. When Biden offers his doubts at one point, Secretary of State Clinton rushes in with a defense of full-scope COIN. “If we go in halfhearted we’ll achieve nothing,” she argues. “We must act like we’re going to win.” At one point in the book Obama admits that he “owns” the war, and Woodward reports that “what everyone knew” was that “a president could not lose—or be seen to be losing—a war.”
So here’s the essential problem: Given a choice between two competing narratives, Vital Interest and Essential Victory or Limit Your Losses, the Obama administration has endorsed both at the same time. Our policy—accelerating into transition, pulling our troops out at a faster rate, pushing Afghans into the lead, very likely before long ramping down budgets and aid programs—indicates that we have made the determination that Afghanistan’s social, political and economic stability is no longer essential. But our rhetoric and the overhang of the counterterrorism-flows-from-stability strategy continue to suggest that if things go south, our “vital interests” remain on the line.
So what happens some years from now when instability reigns; when al Qaeda gains a little foothold somewhere in a chaotic Afghanistan; and when something goes off inside the United States that is traced back to an “expanding network of reconstituted terrorist training camps inside …”? Perhaps it’s obvious—we launch some drone strikes, helicopter in a few SOF teams, end of story. But questions linger: Will this now be our permanent habit and vocation? Are we marrying ourselves to an endless string of such attacks? Will Afghan governments allow it? Will we have the intelligence to be effective? If the attack is severe enough, will we surge troops once again?
Only one thing is clear. All of these questions are being deferred, not answered, by an approach that tries to enfold two sides of a coin. Maybe that’s for the best. Get done with it, avoid the nasty political debate that would accompany an authentic choice, and move on. But there is the nagging suspicion that choices unmade can come back to haunt you.
Dwight Eisenhower confronted a tough decision in 1954—whether or not to support the French at Dien Bien Phu. He saw the risks clearly: The jungles would swallow American divisions; the war would be interminable. He refused to jump in. But he was a Cold Warrior, and didn’t want to be seen as the guy who “Lost Indochina,” and he also refused to rule out intervention–and his rhetoric and strategic concepts gave birth to the “domino theory” and credibility notions that helped box in future presidents. His judgment in 1954 was correct, but he could not bring himself to make the firm, final choice and educated Americans about their interests; and so, as Henry Kissinger has succinctly put it, “Eisenhower’s wise decision not to become involved in Vietnam in 1954 proved to be tactical, not strategic.”
One wonders if the unfolding American policy on Afghanistan today—even after a decade of sacrifice, expenditure and pain—will go down in history in the same way: As a strategic choice averted, as a tactical success that, through its incompleteness, left open the door to later strategic folly.