Dither No Longer

Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy is a good way forward

Last Tuesday, President Obama announced that he would inject 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan by mid-year and begin withdrawing them a year later in July 2011. His primetime speech may have lacked the confidence and gusto of the usual American call to arms, but overall Obama has made some smart decisions about this country’s future involvement in Afghanistan.

The speech was reasoned and academic—Obama took care to talk out the pros and cons of some of the more publicly discussed scenarios for future American military involvement. This motif hinted at the thoroughness of Obama’s months-long strategy review. Calls of “dithering” aside, the president rightly seems to have left no stone unturned. He approached the problem not only with an open mind but also with an eye to the longer-term consequences of every potential strategy, both for Afghanistan and the United States.

At the most basic level, the decision to pursue a troop surge is wise and well thought out. In his speech, Obama emphasized that Afghanistan is not a new Vietnam. Unlike that war, the Afghan one is being fought by a 43-nation collation against not a popular insurgency, but one on the fringe of society. Also, on 9/11, the U.S. was attacked by terrorists harbored by those whom we fight in Afghanistan today. If the Afghan government were to fall once again to them, those attacks are proof enough that there would be direct negative repercussions on American national security.

The new strategy calls for a quick deployment of not just 30,000 American troops, but also 10,000 or so NATO troops, to the most volatile parts of Afghanistan. We call on Canada and our European allies to heed the American call and shoulder a more proportionate responsibility for our mutual security.

In the field, many of the fresh troops will fight embedded within Afghan units, providing the Afghans with valuable on-the-job training. The military and Afghan government will concurrently incentivize less zealous Taliban fighters to lay down their arms or switch sides during a phase of “reconciliation and reintegration.”


The new combined strategy will quickly destroy al-Qaeda and destabilize an increasingly well-organized Taliban, providing a vacuum into which the strengthening Afghan forces and reforming Afghan government can step. From this new position of strength, the Afghan government should be able to keep the Taliban at bay and keep al-Qaeda out.

These new objectives take into consideration the realities of Afghan tribal society. Obama has wisely accepted the Taliban as a faction of that society and is choosing instead to focus on the real threat to American security, radical al-Qaeda.

If the new Afghan strategy sounds familiar, that is because it draws heavily on the successful counterinsurgency tactics learned the hard way in Iraq. Regardless, since the start of Obama’s strategic review three months ago, a large number of Democrats in particular have been critical of any plan that involves moving from the status quo toward any more American involvement in Afghanistan. They seem to have forgotten that, during his presidential campaign, Obama stressed that Afghanistan was a battle worth fighting and one that should be a focus of any U.S. administration.

Lost to this newfound pragmatism, though, is the idealistic rhetoric of the Bush era, which advocated building up infrastructure, the economy, and civil society alongside a vibrant democracy as the road to perpetual peace. Obama’s strategy also calls for a dedicated shift from nation building to a more cost- and time-efficient policy of simply destroying the enemy and leaving Afghanistan with a functioning and effectual government.

In his speech, Obama defended this decision: “As president, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests, and I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces; I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one.” The president claimed that another decade of nation building in Afghanistan would hardly incentivize the Afghan government to take the reins and would distract from imperative domestic issues including health care, education, and economic reform.

Though his argument is not without merit, we worry that Obama’s lack of commitment to protecting democracy will give Afghan citizens a sense that the U.S. is not fully committed to their well-being and that the Afghan government is no more legitimate than the parallel one operated by the Taliban. They, and Pakistan, will rightly continue to hedge their bets and be non-committal to either warring party.

A demonstrable commitment to building a robust, honest, and representative Afghan nation, though expensive, would foster friendships and alliances that would also help achieve Obama’s ultimate objectives—to push out al-Qaeda and quiet the Taliban. Pakistan’s cooperation is especially vital to these ends. Its government must know that America is a committed and honest ally if we are to expect more help in achieving them.

Critics on the left contend that, if Obama’s new military strategy is not as quickly effective as the president hopes, America may still have a potential quagmire on its hands. In this regard, the drawdown timeline is reassuring. It is important that Obama has established that our goals in Afghanistan do not require long-term troop involvement.

However, we remain skeptical that the president’s reasons for setting so specific a date to begin withdrawal are not purely political—as opposed to strategic. Obama emphasized that any drawdown starting in July 2011 will be conditional upon the situation that develops on the ground. Because this catch obviously holds the power to render the timeline meaningless, it seems the date is only a political concession to the nation’s left, meant to quell discontent among those who feel America should leave Afghanistan today.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama’s top military adviser, made it clear last week on Charlie Rose that a full withdrawal date was not even part of the discussion. “The 2011 timeframe is out there as a goal for us to shoot for and to begin the transfer of security responsibility and the transition. It could be a lot of forces, it could be very few forces—we just don’t know.”

As such, critics on the right, primarily Republican leaders, looking to take a jab at the president, who conflate the potential drawdown date with a total withdrawal of an American commitment to Afghanistan, seem to be deliberately misleading the public and are hardly being constructive.

Regardless, Obama’s stated rationale in support of the given timeline is sound enough. A drawdown date, however definite, will certainly incentivize the Afghan government to get its act together and try to take more responsibility for its own security. But given its current weakness, whether it can begin to effectively do this in just 18 months is far from a given.

Despite the uncertain road ahead, Obama is correct in asserting that, if Afghan security forces cannot begin to keep the Taliban at bay and al-Qaeda out of its borders on their own, an American military drawdown would be disastrous for America’s own security.