Obama Strategery

Last night President Obama outlined his long–anticipated war plan for Afghanistan before thousands of cadets and families at the United States Military Academy.  Predictably Obama’s lofty ideas don’t mesh with the realities on the ground.

He began his speech from the podium in West Point’s Eisenhower Hall by juxtaposing the war “of necessity” as opposed to the “second war in Iraq” which “…caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.”  It’s clear he blamed former President Bush for the mess in Afghanistan and by association for the 92 days Obama took to decide on a new strategy.

The president’s Afghanistan end state hasn’t changed since his first strategy was announced in March — “To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”  But his new strategy is plagued with messy problems which will anger his liberal constituency and make conservatives leery.

He announced a three-part Afghan strategy that includes a surge of 30,000 additional troops on top of the 68,000 already there.  The fresh troops, which Obama said begin arriving in early 2010, will “…reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.”  Then he promised to begin withdrawing our forces in 18 months.

In history, the only successful counterinsurgencies have taken many years, not just 18 months. It is simply impossible for a counterinsurgency — to gain the population’s confidence, engage them in repulsing both al Qaeda and the Taliban, enable them to defend themselves and their land and convince them to support a central government — in just 18 months.  

It took the British to fight the Maylayan insurgency twelve years — from 1948 to 1960 — and they weren’t fighting a religiously-motivated enemy. As smart and committed as Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his troops are, and as skillfully as they will operate, it’s simply impossible for them to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban in the short time that the president has imposed.

The reality is the 30,000 man surge will focus only on a few key population centers in the south and east.  The vast majority of the country will be left to the few special operations forces and aerial drones.  This means the Taliban will slip out of the secured population centers, find safe harbor and attack targets of opportunity.  How does this “reverse the Taliban’s momentum” and prepare the Afghan government to assume control of the entire country?

And — presuming that al Qaeda is driven out — what will prevent them from returning as soon as our forces leave? Nothing will.

Obama said “I have asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies.”   Obama hopes NATO, which is conducting a foreign ministerial meeting this week, will commit fresh troops.  That’s doubtful because for most of these allies the Afghan war has virtually no domestic support.  Besides, of the 43 allied nations in Afghanistan, only a few like the British and Canadians fight while the rest hide behind high walls and complex rules of engagement that keep them out of combat.  

Then the president said “We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”  But training security forces take years which doesn’t match his 18 month timetable.

The reality is the Afghan forces are years from being ready to assume the security for that Texas-sized country.  Obama’s promise to rapidly expand training will undermine the fragile success that has been achieved to date.  The primary problem is the Afghan leadership deficit.  Training effective combat leaders can’t be hurried but apparently that’s the mission.

Growing the security forces rapidly will result in poorly trained, less effective units that break and run on the battlefield or collaborate with the enemy.  These soldiers will be more likely to engage in corruption and absences will increase.   

The president wants to “…accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces” beginning in July 2011.  But the problem-plagued Afghan security forces won’t be ready to assume responsibility for a population center in such a short time.  Besides, announcing a deadline signals the Taliban that they only need to hold up until the Americans leave and then reassert themselves.

The second part of Obama’s strategy is “a more effective civilian” effort.  

Obama said “The days of providing a blank check are over.” This was a reference to the corruption filled Afghan federal government under President Hamid Karzai.  Unfortunately, Karzai will tell Obama one thing and return to the narco-fueled war lords for the political support to remain in power.  We have nothing other than Karzai’s unreliable words that he will “combat corruption” that’s necessary to build the confidence in the Afghan people in preparation for assuming the security mission beginning in 2011.

Obama also promised to “…focus our assistance in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”  There are two problems with this effort.  Last March, Obama tried a civilian expert surge but only managed to find one-third enough volunteers because of the security risks.

The second problem is the location for his priority agricultural development.  He intends to focus the troops in the cities but Afghan farmers live in rural areas.  How does the president intend to secure these people?

The third leg of his strategy is “The full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership in Pakistan.”    His strategy creates a new relationship with Pakistan stating, “We are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust.”  

The problems in Afghanistan are compounded by the fragility of Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, whose government is near collapse.  Last week, Zardari relinquished his position in Pakistan’s nuclear command structure to the prime minister.  What kind of partnership can we have with that government?

Obama said “We cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear.”  We know that Pakistan is home for al Qaeda’s leadership and though that country has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan it repeatedly fails to go after al Qaeda and stop the Taliban even after eight years of war and more than $10 billion in U.S. aid.  

What assurance does Obama have that Pakistan is going to be a good partner?   Certainly Obama understands we can’t succeed without Pakistan’s cooperation unless we take matters into our own hands and pursue the enemy into that country.  But Obama didn’t address that alternative even though he did mention that with Pakistan the stakes are high “…because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.”  

President Obama’s closing words were similar to what one might expect from former President Bush.  Obama said “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.”  But then he returned to liberal notions about relying on diplomacy, “We cannot capture or kill every violent extremist abroad” and we will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  

This was Obama’s most important speech to date.  Afghanistan is now officially his war and his presidency will be defined by strategy that doesn’t mesh well with the realities on the ground.  Unfortunately, his dithering for 92 days over the new strategy appears to have made matters worse.

The president eschews an “open-ended” commitment.  But that’s what wars are: if you want to win, as Vietnam taught us, you have to commit whatever is necessary for however long it takes.