Assessing the Afghan Surge
In his address to the nation on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out a strategy he says will turn the tides in the faltering Afghan war effort. Five experts analyze his approach.
December 2, 2009 1:29 pm (EST)
- Expert Roundup
- CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.
In his address to the nation on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out a strategy he says will turn the tides in the faltering Afghan war effort and clear the way for an eventual drawdown of U.S. forces. To do this, Obama has committed an additional thirty thousand troops to the fight, on top of the sixty-eight thousand already there. Yet his commitment will not be open ended, and the president proposed a target date to begin withdrawing American forces.
Response to Obama’s plan has been varied across the political spectrum, as supporters and opponents parse the president’s words for details. Here, five experts--Richard N. Haass, Kim Kagan, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, Candace Rondeaux, and Daniel Markey--offer their assessment of the new strategy, and consider whether it will be sufficient to return stability to Afghanistan, protect the Afghan public, encourage democratic reforms, and begin clearing the way for an eventual departure. --Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
All wars of choice are risky, and Barack Obama’s decision to send thirty thousand additional troops to Afghanistan is no exception. The president is banking on the idea that doing more for eighteen months will make it possible to do less in the long run.
More specifically, he is betting that a surge in U.S. troop numbers and operations will set the Taliban on its heels and give the Afghan government and friendly regional authorities the time and space they need to hold off the Taliban on their own. A policy of counterinsurgency is wrapped in a larger policy of nation-building.
There is, of course, no way of knowing that by the summer of 2011 it will be possible to dial down the U.S. troop presence and not see the situation on the ground unravel. The choices then would be to stay longer, to increase U.S. force levels, or to reduce the U.S. presence and role even though our Afghan partner is not ready to take our place.
[O]ne can question the president’s view that these interests are vital. Afghanistan is no longer home to al-Qaeda (Pakistan is), and al-Qaeda doesn’t need Afghan territory to be a threat.
The first two options would raise the costs to the United States; the latter option would place U.S. interests in Afghanistan at risk. But one can question the president’s view that these interests are vital. Afghanistan is no longer home to al-Qaeda (Pakistan is), and al-Qaeda doesn’t need Afghan territory to be a threat. Nor is it certain the Taliban would invite al-Qaeda back in if it had the chance.
It is equally debatable whether what happens in Afghanistan will be critical to its far more important neighbor Pakistan. What happens in Pakistan will decide that country’s future, and we do not know whether the government there will prove willing and able to tackle the threats that have grown up inside its borders.
Mr. Obama is working to persuade the American people that our interests in Afghanistan are worth sacrificing for, while he places a ceiling on what the United States is prepared to do and for how long.
Therein lies the dilemma, and like all dilemmas, it can only be managed, not resolved.
The strategy that the president [unveiled], with the resources that he has given it, has a reasonable prospect of success. The adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and the continued pursuit of security within Afghanistan are vitally important for U.S. national interests. The addition of thirty thousand troops makes a big difference on the ground, particularly since the senior administration has said that General [Stanley] McChrystal [U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan] will have some control over what the composition of those troops actually is. Meaning the proportion of combat forces, the proportion of trainers, and the proportion of enablers gives McChrystal a degree of flexibility in what resources he gets and how he can apply those resources concretely on the ground to improve security in the areas that he deems critical. The language that the president used was interesting, because he spoke on the one hand of beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces in July of 2011, meaning essentially that the surge would begin to recede in that time, [but] he did not describe a pace of drawdown nor did he describe the rate of drawdown or the specific number of troops that needed to be drawn down at any moment. He left it vague. Now I think that it is more difficult for the United States to seem committed to the Afghan people and to the Pakistani people and indeed to the world if we use language and timelines. That said, the language that the president used referred simply to the beginning of a change in U.S. mission.
[I]n a certain sense, it is a little bit of a race against time. General McChrystal will have to increase the level of security in Afghanistan significantly in the next eighteen months.
The enemy, whatever it thinks about the strategy and the course of action that the president has chosen, has to face about one hundred thousand U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, over the next eighteen months. If in fact the enemy would prefer to wait the United States out, the enemy will have much greater difficulty in pursuing that objective with one hundred thousand U.S. forces on the ground plus the coalition allies. And so in a certain sense, it is a little bit of a race against time. General McChrystal will have to increase the level of security in Afghanistan significantly in the next eighteen months, and yet I still believe that there is a reasonable prospect of success, a reasonable prospect that the addition of forces will lead to greater security. And that greater security and the various programs that the United States and its coalition and international partners will undertake will actually have an impact on the way in which the government of Afghanistan functions.
The articulation of the strategy this time around is much more of an effort to shift the momentum, turn the tide. That is a tide that has been going in the wrong direction in Afghanistan and I think also politically in the United States in terms of people’s expectations or concerns about what we’re doing in Afghanistan. This was an effort to explain how eighteen months from now, things are going to look significantly different because of the investment that the administration’s going to make. It will only be a beginning; I’d have trouble finding somebody who thought eighteen months would be enough to solve anything or resolve anything aside from shifting that momentum. There is [also] a problem with a date certain, which leaves a lot of questions, a lot of "what if" questions from the beginning.
I’d have trouble finding somebody who thought eighteen months would be enough to solve anything or resolve anything aside from shifting that momentum.
What if eighteen months from now we haven’t turned the tide? Does Afghanistan become significantly less significant to our security needs? What if our civilian efforts or our diplomatic efforts or our political efforts in Afghanistan don’t give us the leverage we need to get the Karzai government and the subnational governments to start to do a better job? What if we are not able through our efforts to achieve a better partnership with Afghanistan to convince them to really root out some of the militants and terrorists based there? We will be stuck having put more resources in, having identified this as a central concern of the United States, and having made a promise that we will leave. There is this deep suspicion throughout the region that we have never intended to stay the course, that we don’t have what it takes, that the challenge is enormous, and that everybody can wait us out. And so in some ways, that timeline I think plays into their calculations.
In other words, there’s a lot of talk of enhanced resources, but I want to know how those resources are going to compel or bring about better behavior, better action by both our friends and our adversaries.
One of the first real measures of success of President Obama’s strategy [that] many will be looking at will be in the transformation of the Afghan national security forces into a mature, relatively independent defense asset. The U.S. military has labored intensively to build both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) into a viable security force, and some progress has been made. Yet a perennial shortage of military trainers, logistical challenges, and endemic corruption within that Afghan security apparatus continues to complicate efforts to build a sustainable army and national police force. Given the emphasis in Obama’s strategy on the need for phased transition to an Afghan-led security sector, the question now is what number of troops and police officers are sustainable in an aid-dependent country where the GDP is $11 billion and the annual budget is $7 billion. If the goal is to build a quality force of some one hundred and thirty-four thousand Afghan army soldiers by the end of 2011, then the addition of some four thousand U.S. military trainers under the new troop levels will certainly help. But when it comes to expanding the ANA to two hundred and fifty thousand and ANP to one hundred and fifty thousand, as currently proposed by the Afghan government, then stress on the system is inevitable and may blunt the positive impact that extra U.S. troops will have in the long term.
[I]f [the] Afghan judiciary system cannot guarantee that criminals will be punished, then there is little assurance that this new ’surge and retreat’ strategy will be effective.
Let’s face it: Security and stability depend first on the development of a functional, responsive Afghan government. You can grow the ANP to one hundred and fifty thousand. But if those police officers feel that the only way to get by is through bribery and extortion, and if [the] Afghan judiciary system cannot guarantee that criminals will be punished, then there is little assurance that this new "surge and retreat" strategy will be effective. The current environment in which malign powerbrokers benefit from impunity and instability must be radically transformed before the United States withdraws its forces. The fraudulent August 20 presidential elections [detailed in this new Crisis Group report] proved that the White House can no longer afford to rely on the ballot box for change. More boots on the ground won’t change anything unless the strategic costs of corruption and weak governance are confronted head on.
What I would characterize as the tactical and operational level [of new troops] inside of Afghanistan ... is on target. Where I have a deeper concern--and I don’t know how this will be played out, and we probably won’t know for several more days or even weeks--is what will the judgment on his new strategy be in the region? How will the Pakistanis evaluate this? How will the Afghan government evaluate this? How will the Afghan people judge this strategy? How will the Taliban assess what the president said? What they will be looking for is what this tells [them] about long-term American resolve; I think the wrong interpretation is that we’re leaving in 2011.
How will the Taliban assess what the president said? What they will be looking for is what this tells [them] about long-term American resolve.
The timeline and the speed at which that’s going to happen is undetermined and supposedly is going to be directed by conditions on the ground. So that could be a relatively slow, extended process. We don’t know. Not only is it tied to what the security situation is in those areas, but obviously to the capacity that the Afghan Security Forces increase within the next year, year and a half. Can it be done, absolutely? Can the whole country be turned over in 2011? I think highly doubtful. Despite all of that, I’m afraid there’s going to be an immediate focus on the date of the summer of 2011 as the beginning of the U.S. drawdown. I think that’s a false read on the strategy that the president laid out, but I think it’s something that the United States is going to have to work very hard to ensure doesn’t take hold in the region.
The fight inside of Afghanistan in the integrated civil-military effort is an area that we’re going to have to put increasing vigilance on, especially this civil component. I have concerns with the numbers [of civilians to be sent] because they’re normally a tiny fraction of what the military surge numbers are. It’s critical for us to generate that capacity, not just in Kabul, and not just inside the embassy compound, but out there in the field with the military units. [That’s] where they’re going to have to be working with Afghans at the district level and the sub-district level; that’s where the critical locations are for this civilian manpower. That’s very important. And of course General McChrystal and Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry need to form the same seamless team of focused American leadership that we saw in Iraq with General [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker. That’s certainly a model for that enterprise, and that’s going to be critical in Afghanistan as well.