Obama's Conflicted Strategy

After waiting months for a long-promised "new strategy" to fight what President Obama has oft defined as "the necessary war," he has disappointed. His vaunted strategy not only lacks a clear objective, but is a message of defeat.

Obama spoke of "targeting the insurgency" while his administration prosecutes Navy SEALs for doing just that, imposes insane rules of engagement on soldiers in combat, and insists that terrorists be read their rights on the battlefield. The only targets, as analyst Ralph Peters has said, will be the Soldiers and Marines now hastily preparing to deploy on what their commander-in-chief has already announced as a war he does not support.

Absent from his comments were the words "winning" or "victory." Instead what the U.S. military academy cadets and the world heard was a lame promise to "bring this war to a successful conclusion." (And this only after what we have come to expect from him: the requisite exculpatory remarks about not delaying too long and blaming his predecessor for all his woes)

In a pronouncement guaranteed to anger supporters and detractors alike, Obama split the baby, offering his field leaders — Generals Petraeus and McChrystal — roughly three-quarters of the force structure both officers insisted was necessary in order to pursue a victory strategy.

What emerges from a Hamlet-like, agonizing, months-long exercise is a simple, but demoralizing mission statement: Continue to do something until I can figure a way to get out without losing too much face or damage myself politically.

Missing in the fog of rhetoric was a clear statement as to what America intends to accomplish and a solid strategy for carrying out realistic goals. The people of Afghanistan are left understandably confused about American intentions. Specifically, the adequacy of the U.S. commitment to destroy the latent presence — al Queda, the Taliban — that they know will fill the void when we depart.

Nor did Obama appear to understand the nature of the threat that he acknowledged existed. This war is not about geography, but ideology. Jihadists who mean to do America harm are operating without respect to any borders whatsoever in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, UAE, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. Understanding this real problem means targeting our enemies wherever they operate. Instead, we fruitlessly prop up a corrupt, unpopular government on a worthless patch of land where we are no longer welcome.

The concept of nation building in foreign lands, whose people consider us invaders, is folly, albeit a goal that Obama considers a key facet of this strategy. Meanwhile our own nation remains divided, not only over Afghanistan but on domestic issues and political infighting. Fix Afghanistan when we struggle with the same issues ourselves? How can we do that, and more importantly, why?

The president had a golden opportunity last night to redefine the true nature of the fight and our presence overseas and to set specific objectives for crushing our enemies who started this fight and remain dedicated to the destruction of the Western world. Yet that chance was lost in yet another shining appearance featuring eloquent proclamations in support of the same failed approach as before.

The spectacle of Obama following blindly the strategy of the Bush administration while still blaming Bush or his woes is rich with irony.

How will the generals react? McChrystal, manning up to what he probably knew beforehand what the speech could contain, said that he could accomplish his mission with the resources granted. McChrystal is a professional soldier committed to do his best, but no military leader wants to be told that he must hang on to a losing game for political expediency.

On the other side, Democratis congressional opponents of the plan groused about staying in Afghanistan at all, and about how expensive continued war would be, citing damage to their domestic programs agenda.

Worse, Obama — as do many in his party — placed heavy emphasis on an exit strategy. What does the "end game" look like, he asked rhetorically, and when can we leave theater?

Incredibly, Obama announced to the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership exactly how long they would have to hang on till they can declare victory: about a year and a half and the American draw-down will begin. All troops out by January 2013, a date conveniently set for post-2012 presidential elections.

He did add the usual nuances about withdrawal depending on "conditions on the ground," but America’s enemies have quickly learned that a nuanced Obama is a vacillating and weak Obama. Knowing that merely staying the course for only a couple of years for men who fight generationally is a huge morale boost for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

An "exit strategy" — a despicable politically correct term for losing a war — is not a victory strategy; it is a recipe for military disaster.

Sen. John McCain, who candidate Obama criticized brutally for not being tough enough to find bin Laden and fight the "right" war, said about Obama’s comments, "The way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving."

What does this do for the Soldier? Picture a U.S. soldier approaching an Afghan villager in a dusty hamlet far up in the mountains. "We offer you protection, and in exchange will you tell us which of your neighbors is building bombs alongside the roads where our patrols travel, the same roads that your own children play on?"

Knowing that the Taliban will remain after American troops pull out the villager will see it as reckless to betray his fellow Afghans, even though he may not share their radical ideological beliefs, to assist infidel visitors. "Sorry," the villager is likely to reply. "My fate is here in Afghanistan. I can’t help a stranger who will be gone when I will face accusations later about aiding foreign invaders. Go away and leave me alone."

That scenario will be replayed over and over again, with much American blood flowing in vain, now that the ultimate objective has been firmly centered on our exit from Afghanistan in 2013.

What risks being broken now is the will of the American fighting men and women who are now asked to hold on until they can come home. If they are only being deployed so that they can be brought back, then why send them at all?

References to bin Laden that scored the president high campaign points, by the way, were notably absent in the president’s speech. Clearly the emphasis has shifted from "track him down wherever he is hiding" to how do I get out of this war and get reelected.

America is now faced with the imminent prospect of losing yet another war, with all the consequences intrinsic in that defeat.

We are going to ask our soldiers to "die for a tie" as we did in Korea, Vietnam, and for that matter the Gulf War, where we snatched defeat from victory’s jaws by allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power for another decade only to force a "do-over."

Furthermore, illustrative of Obama’s cognitive dissonance in regard to on-the-ground-situations, the president insists that Afghan security forces — that have been notoriously slow to respond to recruitment and training over the past eight years by a central government they despise and mistrust — be grown at an impossibly rapid rate in one year.

There are 95,000 Afghan troops at present and the U.S. wants that number up to 134,000 by October 2010, three years earlier than originally envisaged, and then to 240,000 by 2013. There are about 92,000 Afghan police and the U.S. target is 160,000 by 2013. It will not be possible to meet these numbers, plain and simple. After all, how many young men will be lured by the prospect of risking their lives for a government that they don’t believe in for an ally who has already promised to abandon them?

U.S. forces are directed to hand over responsibility for securing the country to the Afghan security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow." The political pressure on command to cook the books and report that this is really happening are going to be huge. We’ve seen this before — in Vietnam and elsewhere — and it will happen again.

Obama’s style — both in domestic and foreign policy — is to issue stern ultimata then back down from them. It has reached the point that no foreign leader takes him seriously. Simply demanding that Afghan security force levels grow exponentially will not make that happen. Nor will insisting on greater transparency and less corruption in Afghanistan’s fumbling Karzai government induce magical transformation.

Karzai knows now that for America he is the only game in town. He and his corrupt sycophants will persist in milking aid packages to the extent possible, secure in the knowledge that he now can steal as much as he can and book his exile for some time prior to January 2013. Despite Obama’s insistence on "benchmarks" for security forces to develop and government to cleanse itself, Karzai can be sanguine in the knowledge that America is now "all in" on his regime and will not hold him accountable.


Afghan tribal leaders — who the media calls "warlords" and are the real power in a broken country — will scramble in reaction to this "new strategy" to cut deals with those they know will be there after Karzai’s predictable fall: the Taliban. To these hard men who survive by wits and expediency, it is now clear that the "strong horse" is not America but the men in the black turbans who will spread again across the land after the U.S. pullout.

Paradoxically — and tragically for American service men and women who will pay the price in sweat and blood — Obama’s weak response and exit strategy will only enable those he decried as a "threat of the world’s security" to regain power.

Obama also spoke nebulously of possibly expanding the war into Pakistan, itself wracked by Taliban and al Queda uprisings. "We are," our president said, "committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust."

Really? Pakistan is on the verge of internal collapse with an unpopular president, a fragile but ambitious military, and a population that hates America more than it does the very Taliban who ravage much of their country. Saying the nice words doesn’t make it so.

Generals Petraeus and McChrystal — not to mention the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have been placed in a quandary. The commander on the ground and his immediate theater supervisor responded in good faith to a presidential directive to produce a winning strategy for Afghanistan. Their recommendations were first buried then, when leaked, attacked by the president and his staff.

If the president is unhappy with his leaders — hand-picked in McChrystal’s case — then he ought to relieve them and appoint officers who will toe his line. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur when the latter publicly refuted White House policy. Jimmy Carter removed General Jack Singlaub from South Korea when the general insisted that the Carter policy was failed. It is the president’s prerogative to exercise this option.

Instead Obama has placed both leaders — neither of whom wants to abandon the fight — squarely in a moral dilemma.

On their parts, McChrystal and Petraeus are faced with their own professional decisions: is it preferable to stay in place and make a best effort to implement a frivolous strategy that flies in the face of their recommendations, or ought they resign, quietly or in protest, in order to make a point?

This is a tough choice, and an implicitly unfair one to impose on any serving officer. But life is unfair. Within the military culture quitting is scorned. An officer is trained from inception in two essential tenets: accomplish the mission and take care of your men.

Voluntarily leaving a post in combat could easily be construed as cowardice. Conversely continuing to send men and women to their deaths in pursuit of a fruitless, nebulous non-mission is feckless and irresponsible.

Each will have to make his own decision. For Petraeus, he has a wider degree of responsibility than Afghanistan, with Iraq and the Central Command theater in his portfolio. McChrysal already seems to have made his choice to stay. If conditions deteriorate he may well choose to step aside, given the friction with his predecessor and current Ambassador Karl Eikenberry over strategy and as a statement that lukewarm response to his recommendations is inadequate for mission accomplishment and soldier welfare.

Regardless of the decision these gentlemen will make, the larger question remains: is what Obama proposes a viable strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan?

Unfortunately the short answer is no. First, what is it not. It is not a strategy for victory either in an exercise of nation building nor in attrition of al Queda. The former calls for a significant increase of troop presence — the strategy recommended by McChrystal — and the numbers are simply not there. The latter shifts force structure to emphasize special operations forces and others who are singularly focused on eliminating al Queda and Taliban — primarily at the leadership levels. Obviously with this nebulous mix of missions and insistence on a JAG-supervised war that is not the case either.

Understand that I am not a supporter of the McChrystal plan. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is not a nation in the modern sense. Never was, never will be. The region and tribe — in some cases the valley and hamlet — are the highest political entities to which Afghans pledge fealty. The concept of a nation-state with a functioning central government and loyalty up, loyalty down, simply is non-existent in what would better be described as a geographical eccentricity than a country.

Any attempt to impose Western standards upon Afghanistan will be doomed from the onset. My preference for a strategy would be to set aggressive killing of al Queda and Taliban leaders as a priority and proceed apace to do just that.

But this issue is not about how I or other analysts see things. It is about what America as an actor on the international stage does and how we go about doing it.

What troubles me enormously is that by endless dithering, supposedly consumed with discussing nuances of grand strategy that Obama and his team clearly do not comprehend, the net result has been a duck-billed platypus notion that we can do all things in Afghanistan — except with less support than needed and on a wildly optimistic timetable — then leave with head held high. News flash: You can’t get there from here.

A long-held military aphorism is "lead, follow, or get out of the way." Obama has selected a fourth choice "muddle through," and the end result is going to be more spilled blood and treasure in the sand of Afghanistan, with the only realistic prospect a looming, humiliating retreat by American forces.

This is not leadership, it is an intellectual and moral compromise entirely motivated by political ambition and a grossly amateurish perception of situational realities.

Cartoon by Brett Noel