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Obama's Withdrawal Date a Controversial Gambit

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 2, 2009

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CFR's top defense policy expert Stephen Biddle says a controversial part of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan was his pledge that U.S. forces would begin to withdraw in July 2011. He says Democrats critical of the war "will be upset with the 30,000 troop increase, and how close it is to what [Afghan Commander General Stanley] McChrystal requested. And my guess is they will probably not be satisfied with the idea that there's a date for the beginning of a process that has no specified end." He says Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be worried about the depth of the American commitment and al-Qaeda would be encouraged by the prospect of a withdrawal. Biddle says he would have preferred the president not to have been so precise on a date.

President Obama made two major points in his speech: First, that the United States plans to increase the size of American forces there by 30,000 and that they would be deployed in six months or so. The second point, which is probably more controversial, is that the United States wants to start withdrawing them in July 2011, which for a lot of military people probably is the wrong signal to send to your enemy. Am I reading too much into that?

Of course there's more to the speech than the troop increase and the troop draw down parts of it, though those are obviously going to be the ones that are probably going to be talked about the most. I am also very skeptical about the utility of naming a date, especially when what you're actually saying you're going to do as of that date certain is so unspecified. What the administration has actually said is that in July 2011 it will begin a process of withdrawal, but they have deliberately not said when the withdrawal will end, or how deep it will go, or how fast it will proceed. So all they're actually saying in concrete terms is in August 2011 there will be at least one fewer American soldier in Afghanistan than there was in June 2011.

So you don't think that's a bad thing then, necessarily.

Well I just think it's not saying very much. In exchange for not saying very much in concrete terms, what you're doing is conveying the impression in the region that you're uncomfortable with long stays. I mean, why did you go so far out of your way to name a date for when you're going to begin a withdrawal if you're actually committed to stay as long as necessary? What it does to people in South Asia - many of whom already are very skeptical that the United States has the willingness to stay long enough to get the job done - is that it reinforces all of their skepticism. Then you look at progressives in the Democratic party and presumably one of the purposes of naming a date was to respond to the concern among Democratic progressives that this not be seen as an open-ended, unlimited stay and that you respond to Democratic progressives' desire to have some sort of calendar schedule for withdrawal. So you include a date, but I doubt that Democratic progressives are going to be satisfied with a discussion of withdrawal that's this vague.

What about the size of the increase? U.S. commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal's optimum number was about 40,000 and he's getting thirty. Does that make a difference?

It makes some difference, but I don't think it makes a difference between success and defeat. More troops is always better than less; the probability of victory is higher with more than it is with less, and in all likelihood, the ultimate cost of bringing about success if you get it is lower the larger the reinforcement, but I don't think there's some magic threshold that if you have 40,001 additional U.S. soldiers you get victory, if you have 39,999 additional American soldiers you get defeat. I think there's a smooth continuum, and being within ten thousand of McChrystal's preferred number will restrict the conduct of the campaign in some ways. But I doubt that they would be decisive in themselves, especially if the administration is successful in getting anything like the five to seven thousand additional allied forces that they're going to seek.

Do you get the impression that the president is seeking a victory here?

He doesn't use the term victory very much, but the administration is clearly concerned with success in the sense of securing American's minimum national security interests in the conflict. They're clearly concerned with whether or not al-Qaeda gets a base in Afghanistan again and whether or not Pakistan collapses and leaks nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda or other terrorists.

I thought one of the interesting things was a sort of open-ended commitment to Pakistan.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Well I mean, in a sense there's an open-ended commitment to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The administration says it's going to be engaged diplomatically, economically and politically with both of these countries for the indefinite future, that we're not just going to turn our back on the region and forget about it the way we did in the 1990s. That doesn't necessarily imply troop presence in perpetuity, it doesn't necessarily imply aid of any particular amount in perpetuity, but I think the president is clearly trying to send the message that we are not just going to ignore the region again.

Earlier this year you were on a team of non-governmental experts who advised General McChrystal. Will he use these extra troops primarily in the South?

The South and the East are likely to be where the reinforcements go, yes. The discussion so far has suggested that the first arriving reinforcements will probably go into Helmand, but they'll be divided between Helmand, Kandahar province, and three provinces in the center part of the country on the approach routes to Kabul.

And the Taliban, if they follow their previous tactics, will they just withdraw?

 

They will probably increasingly emphasize operations in the North and the West but I don't think they will completely abandon provinces where we reinforce. They're too important to the Taliban to simply abandon, number one. Secondly, a lot of the Taliban's combatants are not particularly mobile. A fair fraction of the Taliban's foot soldiers are people who fight in the vicinity of the villages they grew up, have lived in their whole lives, and are deeply familiar with. That kind of part-time combatant isn't the sort of full-time professional soldier that you can just order to suddenly go to Kunduz, Balkh or Herat - somewhere which would seem as strange and alien to that kind of soldier as San Francisco almost - and tell them to go fight there. Some part of the Taliban's combatant force structure is mobile and does move around. The majority of it probably is not and does not. So there will be some degree of reallocation of effort by the Taliban; it will not be 100 percent.

You've made the point in several different venues that it's crucial when you increase forces that it demonstrate to the Afghans that they're getting security. That's the point of counterinsurgency. Can we do that? Will we be able to get this kind of security in these key places?

Let's say the president authorized the entire 40,000 in reinforcements that McChrystal requested; that wouldn't yield immediate population security across the whole country either.  Inevitably, you're going to be dealing with a process of triage, or what counterinsurgency theorists sometimes refer to as an ink-spot strategy. You begin by securing a part of the country, and then as the indigenous force grows and becomes more capable, you put them in charge of holding what's already been cleared, and the foreign forces and the best trained, most capable fraction of the indigenous military goes on and clears an adjoining area. And as the indigenous forces grow, more get handed off to them, and the elite forces go on and clear the next area. And gradually, that ink spot spreads from its origin to encompass more and more of the country. Any of the troop reinforcement options under discussion at all would all require triage; they would all leave some part of the country initially in what the military calls an "economy of force status," in which you do not have enough troops yet to secure them. The difference is how big the initial ink spot is, and how fast does it spread. They would all be ink spots.

How long would it take to train enough Afghan troops, because right now it doesn't seem like they're doing much.

Well they're doing more than Americans sometimes give them credit for, and they're taking a lot of casualties in the process, so I wouldn't undersell what they're contributing. But their core structure is just too small. How long it will take to create an Afghan force of a given size isn't a fixed figure; it's a variable that depends on a variety of things, but one of the most important of them is how you're going to use them when you get them created. So for example, General McChrystal's proposal called for deliberately fielding Afghan units very quickly before they had reached levels of proficiency that we would normally consider acceptable for Americans, and then making those relatively green Afghan units capable in the field once they were deployed by partnering them permanently with Western formations that would live with them, eat with them, train with them, and fight together with them on the battlefield and make them capable. So, as a function of how much partnering you're willing to do in this way, you can afford to speed up the training process and push Afghan units out of the pipeline faster. If you don't want to do as much partnering, then the Afghan troops need to be more proficient--you need to keep them in training longer before you commit them to battle--and the process slows down. There's a sliding scale here and McChrystal's preference, as of the summer certainly, was to accelerate the training and force development process by radically increasing the degree of partnering once they got into the field.

Now the president in his speech really didn't talk much about tactics - I didn't hear the word "counterinsurgency" or "counterterrorism"- but is counterinsurgency still alive?

I would assume so. Certainly there's nothing in his speech that suggested the basic thrust of how the war would be waged would be different than what McChrystal was talking about. Now some of the comments that administration officials have been making in background briefings in the last day or two could be read to imply some degree of concern with the traditional counterinsurgency approach, but there's been no explicit comment that I've seen that clearly suggests that the administration is going to go a different way in the conduct of the war than what General McChrystal was recommending.

Let's return to this withdrawal date, which as you point out just says they'll begin in July 2011. If you're in Kabul, and you're in the government now, do you get alarmed at this?

Well I mean the way the administration I think would like them to react is by saying, "we cannot rely on the Americans to bail us out forever, therefore we need to get our house in order and set up something that can survive their departure, because they will indeed depart at some point in the reasonably near future." That's the reaction they would like to see. Now you could just as easily get a very different reaction, along the lines of "Gee, the Americans aren't as committed to this as we hoped they would be; they seemed to be very interested in this business of dates and calendar deadlines and all that. Perhaps this is just conformation of our fears that in fact they're not very committed to the war, so what we really ought to do instead of accepting the huge political costs and risks of reform, which phrased in somewhat most euphemistic ways in Afghan eyes means ditching all of the allies that I've made deals with--I, Hamid Karzai over the last couple of years--in the interests of seating American preferences. Why should I accept all those costs if in fact the Americans aren't going to stay long enough to defeat the Taliban in exchange? Maybe what I really ought to do is hedge my bets much more aggressively than I've been doing."

Do you agree with me that that's really the most potentially controversial part of this speech?

Yes. Well, progressives will be upset with the 30,000 troop increase, and how close it is to what McChrystal requested. And my guess is they will probably not be satisfied with the idea that there's a date for the beginning of a process that has no specified end.

And when al-Qaeda reads the speech what do they say?

Again I think a lot of your reading of something that's this underspecified depends on what you thought beforehand. If beforehand you thought that the Americans don't have the spine to stick this out, you probably look at the fact that the president went way out of his way to designate a date for the beginning of withdrawal as confirmation of your prior belief about American lack of will. If you're a progressive Democrat in the House of Representatives and your prior concern was the opposite--that this administration was willing to stay forever in what's a Vietnam-like quagmire--then you look at the same thing and you say "the fact they're only willing to talk about when the withdrawal begins but they won't tell me when it finishes means that they're actually prepared to keep us there effectively forever." When you look at something this unspecified, it tends to take the shape of your preconception.

What would you have preferred?

My own preference would have been if the president had said: "Here is the strategy by which we're going to get from where we are now to an Afghanistan that can control its territory to the point where it can't become a base for attacking us or destabilizing Pakistan. Our best estimate, based on extensive consultation with the U.S. military is that we think it will take something like three to five years to bring that about, or whatever number the administration comes to. But that's an estimate, and our primary objective is to succeed in ensuring that the country does not become a base for attacking us or destabilizing Pakistan. But we don't think that requires that we stay for twenty years. We do think that it requires that we stay longer than one. This is our best guess of what this strategy for bringing about success will cost, and what it will take in terms of sacrifice of American lives and dollars." If they had done it that way, I think they at least speak to the progressive concern with the open-ended nature of the thing, but they don't set any date certain, and wouldn't convey to South Asians that we lack the will power to carry through on our promises.

 

 

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