The Afghan surge was a course correction

by Andrew Sprung

During Obama's long deliberation on AfPak policy, we heard many variations on the theme that Obama was in part boxed in by his past pronouncements and policy. In the campaign, he had cast Afghanistan as "the central front in the war on terror"; in March he had sent in an additional 21,000 troops; his chosen new commander was requesting 40,000 more. QED: resisting that demand would be a course reversal.

What's less often stressed is that the new surge of 30,000 troops was itself a wrenching shift in Administration plans, prompted by continued Taliban gains throughout the spring and by the fraud-riddled election.  On April 29, CNN asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates if the U.S. would be likely to send further troops to Afghanistan. Here's the exchange:

Q You once said that the chief lesson you learned from 40 years in government was the limits of power. So apply that lesson to Afghanistan today. What do you think of - what are the limits to what America can do in Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: Well, I have been quoted as accurately as saying I have real reservations about significant further commitments of American military - of the American military to Afghanistan, beyond what the president has already approved. The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn't care about civilian casualties. And they couldn't win. If there's ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience. And I think there's a lot we can learn from that. And so I worry - it is absolutely critical that the Afghans believe that this is their war. It is their war against people who are trying to overthrow their government that they democratically elected.   [snip]

Q But that means that a year from now, six months from now, you are unlikely to approve a request for additional troops in Afghanistan.

SEC. GATES: I would be a hard sell; there's no question about it. And I have not made a secret of that, either publicly or in government meetings. I think we will have - between the American military commitment and our coalition partners, the ISAF partners, we will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That's only about 10,000 shy of what the Russians had. And I think we need to think about that.

So the U.S. troop commitment has passed a signpost that may have been arbitrary but was apparently a significant marker in Gates' mind.  Plainly the situation deteriorated badly between May and September.  And surely Obama was no more eager to commit more troops than Gates was.

As Michael Crowley has chronicled, McChrystal's August report changed Gates' perspective: “I heard General McChrystal when he says it’s not so much the size of the footprint as how you use those troops, and I accept that. I think that’s right.”  Like Obama, Gates may be comfortable with the new policy. Nonetheless it's worth noting: the surge was a course correction.