Obama and Afghanistan

Obama's address on Afghanistan was a notable political success. The tone was terse and confident. The plan calls for faster force reductions than the military wants, but slower than much of the country would like--a position that is easy to cast as a responsible middle way. And the president is keeping the promise he made when announcing the surge at the end of 2009, with the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops starting now, and complete not just by the end of 2012 but in time for the election.

The underlying philosophy outline in the address also strikes me as right.

[T]onight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm's way. We've ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.

As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force -- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don't have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we're doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

"...as pragmatic as we are passionate." A difficult balance to strike, obviously, but right nonetheless. The characteristic emphasis on pragmatism--on balancing ends and means--is surely correct.

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Politics and underlying approach aside, however, I question the wisdom of the details on Afghanistan.

Completing the withdrawal of the surge forces by September 2012 will undermine US and allied effectiveness in that summer's fighting season. It would have made a big difference to delay that phase of the withdrawal until the end of the year. It would be disappointing, though not very surprising, if electoral timing had settled that discussion.

More generally, there is still a lack of clarity over the administration's goals in Afghanistan. The two contending strategies--counterinsurgency and counterterrorism--involve very different outcomes. Does the administration think that by time time US forces are drawn all the way down, the counterinsurgency mission will be accomplished? Or is it pivoting to a counterterrorism strategy regardless? Perhaps even a sustained and amply resourced COIN was doomed to fail in any event: reasonable people can disagree about that. Perhaps CT with its far more limited goals was the better approach all along. But going forward, which is it? As Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner say:

The United States should not promote a comprehensive COIN strategy and then under resource it. Nor should U.S. leaders enact a CT strategy and expect all the results that only a COIN strategy can achieve.