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A Longer, Lighter Afghan Presence

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 24, 2011

President Obama's speech on the Afghanistan military drawdown should have affirmed a longer U.S. troop commitment in the region, even if it meant cutting force size further, says CFR military expert Stephen Biddle. "The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan is hedging behaviors by Afghans and Pakistanis that make governance reform in Afghanistan very hard and that make progress against Taliban base camps in Pakistan very hard," he says. "These hedging behaviors are inspired by fears in the region that we're going to abandon Afghanistan before it's stable." As to the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Biddle says that it is soon to tell whether the organization will falter under the leadership of his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or whether he will try to launch some spectacular terrorist action to bolster his credentials.

On Wednesday night, President Obama announced that the United States would pull out all thirty-three thousand troops sent to Afghanistan as part of the "surge" by September 2012, starting with withdrawing ten thousand by the end of this year. What was your impression of the speech?

To an American domestic audience, a big part of the message the president was trying to send is that the United States is not going to stay in Afghanistan as long as you fear, that the war isn't endless. But the message you want South Asians to take away, on the other hand, is that we're not leaving as fast as you think we are. So you're stuck trying to cast an uneasy balance between telling Americans that this isn't endless and telling South Asians we're not abandoning them by heading to the exits in a hurry.

This is essentially the same problem the administration has faced ever since they came into office, but especially since 2009 when they went through a lengthy review in the fall, after the assessment submitted by then Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who asked for forty thousand more troops and eventually got thirty thousand. I understand this dilemma and I'm sympathetic to the administration's need to deal with it in ways that are probably not going to leave everyone happy--but it did not leave me happy either. The way I would prefer the administration to have dealt with the problem was to strike a balance and give the campaign more time, even with fewer troops--rather than the other way around.

Be more explicit.

I would have preferred that they cut the military's troop size more than they have, but give them as much time as they think they want or need. The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan is hedging behaviors by Afghans and Pakistanis that make governance reform in Afghanistan very hard and that make progress against Taliban base camps in Pakistan very hard. And these hedging behaviors are inspired by fears in the region that we're going to abandon Afghanistan before it's stable. For that reason, I would have preferred that the administration go with something that people sometimes call "long but light."

How long?

Well ideally, you wouldn't attach timetables to it. Every time you set a date, you provoke people who are afraid that you're bugging out to interpret that date as a sign that you're leaving. This is exactly what happened with the July 2011 date announcement [he said the newly assigned troops would begin to be withdrawn in July 2011] in the president's West Point speech in 2009. The administration saw the folks in the region reading this an American unwillingness to stay long enough, and so they subsequently deemphasized July 2011 in their public statements and started talking more and more about 2014 instead [which is the NATO date for staying in Afghanistan]. But anytime you talk about dates, you're encouraging perceptions that you're a short timer.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

With respect to the [June 22] speech, the key issue here is that it's been reported that General David Petraeus, the outgoing Afghan commander, recommended that the bulk of the surge forces come out by the end of 2012. The president said, though, that they will all be out by September of 2012. So he has gone out of his way to take a three-month time period out of the military recommendation, which a lot of people read as a signal that the administration doesn't want the troops to stay as long as the military wants them to stay.

Why couldn't he have said the remainder would be out by the end of next year? That would have been symmetrical.

He could have, and I would have preferred that he had. The fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal. When the snow pack melts and when the foliage comes back on the trees to provide overhead cover, the insurgents increase the tempo of their combat activities and they try and do whatever counterattacks and whatever offenses they are going to do. In the winter, when the passes freeze, and the leaves come off the trees and cover gets harder, the fighting tends to die down. Part of the logic, I suspect, in Petraeus's reported recommendation that the last of the surge come out by the end of December 2012 is that gives you an entire fighting season in 2012, with a preponderance, or significant part, of the surge forces in place to resist Taliban counterattacks, which you would accomplish with that rather modest three-month change in the schedule. In my opinion, the decision to pull out by September 2012 produces a disproportionate military impact for a rather small calendar acceleration.

Some early news reports out of Afghanistan suggest that people in the affected areas are now very concerned that the United States is on its way out (NYT).

This is the dilemma you face in any speech of this kind. There are more efficient ways to balance domestic and foreign audience requirements than that speech accomplished. But to some extent, any time you address the American public's concern that this involvement is endless, you are going to raise those concerns in the theater. Part of the way they are trying to counterbalance that effect is with the 2014 transition deadline and associated issues and with the Strategic Partnership Agreement negotiations we are now engaged in with the government of Afghanistan.

You're stuck trying to cast an uneasy balance between telling Americans that this isn't endless and telling South Asians we're not abandoning them by heading to the exits in a hurry.

The whole point of the strategic partnership talks is to make an enduring commitment to the government of Afghanistan so that they will not feel that we are abandoning them, that we have some formal agreement with them that codifies a longer engagement that goes not just beyond 2012, but beyond 2014 and may very well involve a military presence beyond 2014. They are trying to do what they can to clarify that this does not mean that the American military involvement in Afghanistan ends in September 2012, but they probably don't want to put "We will have sixty-eight thousand American troops in Afghanistan in October 2012" on a big neon sign and put it on a bulletin board on Times Square either.

The killing of Osama bin Laden last month was cited, of course, by the president as an indication of al-Qaeda's weakening. How would you describe al-Qaeda today?

Al-Qaeda is clearly a weaker organization by virtue of bin Laden's removal. Bin Laden was an unusually talented leader both in terms of his public charisma and his operational guidance of the organization. In addition, his successor is such a flawed individual in so many ways. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a divisive personality type (CSMonitor).

Having an al-Qaeda central leadership that is effective in motivating local affiliates is important. And al-Zawahiri is probably going to be much less adept at that than bin Laden was. But the key fact at the moment is that we don't know what effect bin Laden's death is going to have because not enough time has gone by to be able to observe the organization in action in the aftermath. Normally when you decapitate the central leadership, the organization gets weaker, but it does not die. Most of the time, killing the leader does not destroy the terrorist organization. A smart money bet on al-Qaeda would be that it would get weaker, but it won't go away. There are exceptions. Shining Path in Peru withered and died after Abimael Guzmán was captured in 1992; [Japan's] Aum Shinrikyo had a very hard time after Shoko Asahara was arrested in 1995.

The norm, though, is a lot closer to al-Qaeda in Iraq (NYT) in 2006 after we killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They replaced him, violence continued, so it had very little impact. As to al-Qaeda in the aftermath of bin Laden, the smart approach is to watch and wait. Let's see what al-Zawahiri-led al-Qaeda does in the next few months. He's got a big incentive to try and pull off something big to show that he's in charge, that the organization is still alive, and that his credentials as a military leader are comparable to bin Laden's. Al-Zawahiri is thought of as an intellectual, rather than sort of a combatant. Let's see what happens as he tries to accelerate al-Qaeda's tempo of violence and let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that al-Qaeda goes the way the Shining Path did and not the way its Iraqi affiliates did in 2006.

And the Pakistanis, of course, are crucial here. How are they going to interpret the speech?

They would like a stable Afghanistan and could accept one along American preferred lines, but they are afraid the United States is going to abandon the region too soon and would leave a mess on their western border. There's precedence of this. It's not a completely unreasonable concern on their part. And therefore, they are hedging their bets, especially via support for organizations like the Afghan Taliban, which they hope will be their Plan B that gives them an acceptable safety net, in the event that the United States does leave. The hedging we see from them stems from this fear that we are going to abandon the region.

I suspect that they'll read the September 2012 figure as supporting their fears that the American political system lacks patience to do this right. And it will reinforce their tendencies to hedge. That's one of the reasons that I would prefer that the administration cut back troop count more aggressively, but push deadlines, wherever possible, out. This whole question about talking about deadlines, and especially taking military recommendations for deadlines and moving them up, tends to promote exactly this kind of hedging behavior. And I worry a lot about its consequences for the success of the American counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan and the cause of stability in the region.

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