President Obama extended by years America’s commitment to the Afghan war, which is hard to understand given his strategy’s lack of success and competing threats. Congress must demand that the President justify this extension.
Last weekend at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) annual conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Obama declared, “My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned; Afghans are in the lead, and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we’re involved in now.” Those are overly optimistic goals given our lack of success and the radical time adjustment to his strategy.
Last December Obama announced a three-part Afghan war strategy and a deadline to begin withdrawing our forces by July 2011. His strategy includes a surge of 30,000 additional troops, which he promised would “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” He promised to “accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces” and said “our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership in Pakistan.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised at the time, “If it appears that the strategy is not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself.” It is now time for the strategy’s annual review.
But General David Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, dismissed the “hard look” promise to say that he did “not want to overplay the significance of this [annual] review which … will only be three or four months since the full deployment of all of the surge forces.” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy echoed that view, noting that the review would simply “be a bit of a deeper dive” than the President’s regular assessments.
Obviously the administration isn’t going to take a “hard look” at its strategy. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which constitutionally funds wars, must question the President’s strategy and how more investment will keep America safer than using those resources elsewhere.
The first part of Obama’s strategy was to surge our forces to 100,000—doctrinally not enough for that Texas-sized country with 33 million people—and then accelerate operations. Our higher operational tempo and the bringing of more troops into combat contributed to the loss of 448 American lives so far, making 2010 the bloodiest year to date for the Afghan war. It is noteworthy that just as America surged, key allies like the British and Canadians announced plans to shift their troops from a combat role.
The proof of concept for Obama’s strategy was “to reverse the Taliban’s momentum” in Marja, a community in the Helmand province, which began in February. After initial successes, progress became a tortuous effort to prevent the insurgents from filtering back. And just as troubling, the governance piece of the strategy for Marja—delivering services and leadership—lags because of the Afghan government’s incompetence.
Obama obviously underestimated the enemy’s resilience in Marja, Kabul’s competence, and apparently the same problems apply to Kandahar as well. The battle for Kandahar, the ancestral home of the Taliban, began late this summer, rather than in the spring, as originally planned. Kandahar was expected to be the turning point of the war, but now officials indicate that it will be next spring at the earliest before we know if that effort will bear fruit.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided a rather tepid endorsement of Obama’s Afghan strategy. Last week, Mullen told a Harvard University audience the conflict is “at the stage where it’s fairly chaotic, but security is starting to turn—it’s very fragile and it’s very reversible, but it’s going to take us some time.”
Second, Obama’s strategy also promised to “accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces” beginning in 2011, but there is now recognition that much more time and resources are required before those forces will be ready to assume responsibility.
The Afghan security forces will total 250,000 members by year’s end, but many units, especially the police, remain poorly trained and unable to battle the insurgency. It is also feared that the country would relapse into anarchy if we turned over security to the existing force too soon.
A large part of the Afghanis’ training problem has to do with our allies’ failure to meet commitments to provide trainers, retarding efforts to create capable forces. The U.S. military, which does most of the fighting, lacks additional personnel to accelerate that training due to other global commitments.
It is noteworthy that Obama’s strategy hasn’t earned the Afghan government’s full support, which is a serious impediment. In 2010 Afghanistan’s problems with corruption, contracting, and secret talks with the enemy have contributed to mistrust. Additionally, President Hamid Karzai is openly critical of allied efforts, but as Secretary Gates said, “We will continue to work with him [Karzai] as a good partner.”
Finally, Obama linked his strategy to neighbor Pakistan, which he said “is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust.” But our Pakistani partner, President Asif Ali Zardari, is a fragile leader whose government is near collapse.
In spite of that government’s fragility, we continue to pour billions of aid dollars into Pakistan, expecting Islamabad to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda. But all we get for our investment are ambushed supply convoys, complaints about our drone attacks on enemy leaders hiding in that country, and excuses why the Pakistani army can’t defeat our mutual enemies.
The obvious lack of success for Obama’s three-part war strategy begs the question: Where is the security return for our $100 billion annual investment and the loss of American lives?
In 2010 our terrorist problems came from Pakistan, Yemen, and now there is evidence that new threats will come from the Horn of Africa. But Obama committed our military to what he calls the Afghan “war of necessity” for at least another three years without demonstrating the nexus of that conflict to these and other threats.
Worse yet, Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, said that Obama is likely understating our commitment. Sedwill told The Washington Post that 2014 is “not an end of mission.” He cautioned that the transition to Afghan control could go into “2015 and beyond.”
Obama extended our Afghan commitment without a thorough review of his yet-to-be-proven strategy. That’s why Congress should exercise its constitutional oversight responsibility to demand that the President demonstrate the necessity to continue our Afghan effort, as opposed to targeting those limited defense dollars and troops to address other threats.