30,000 for Afghanistan. Obama Takes Ownership

Thursday, December 3, 2009

By Josh Linden

So the big news in the greater Middle East region today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future, is the announcement of President Obama's reformulated Afghanistan strategy. There are any number of ways to interpret this policy revision, but it's probably important to start with a few basic facts, such as a simple linear timeline of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan during Obama's tenure in office.

 
  • January 2009 – 32,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, with 6,000 additional forces en route under orders from the Bush Administration.
  • February 2009 – Obama orders 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number to 55,000.
  • March 2009 – Obama introduces a new comprehensive strategy, which among other things includes another 4,000 troops – above the previous 17,000 – to serve in advisory roles for the Afghan army.
  • November 2009 – Deployment levels reach a new high of 68,000.
  • December 2009 – Obama issues an order for 30,000 additional troops, raising the total level to 98,000.
 
To recap: Obama began his term with 32,000 troops in the region. He will end his first year in office having ordered a total of 98,000 U.S. soldiers to deploy to the Afghan theater.
 
Now this isn't terribly surprising for those who followed the literal narrative of the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly Obama's persistent rhetoric on the stump about the strategic value of Afghanistan in the larger struggle against Al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists. Perhaps progressives and other members of his base had hoped that these words were only that, empty phrases intended to bolster his national security bona fides in the eyes of the political middle, those undecided whom he needed to secure an electoral victory. After all, Obama's political base is the same demographic that viscerally opposed the Iraq war, and it's telling that we heard little outrage during the election season from liberal groups about Obama's foreign policy pronouncements. They simply didn't believe that if elected he would follow through and were thus willing to swallow hard and cheer on.
 
Adam Serwer, over at TAPPED, summed this up well I think:
 
During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama said the Iraq War was unnecessary, and that it had drained resources from the more relevant conflict in Afghanistan. He pledged to properly resource that conflict. Liberals hoped -- as they did with his position on gay marriage -- that he didn't really mean it. Well he did, he does, and tonight, the president announced that he will be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban and establish conditions for a drawdown beginning in 2011.
 
But as difficult as it is to reconcile core liberal beliefs with support for yet another president who uses military adventurism as the cornerstone for major foreign policy, there may be value in the notion that Obama has maintained a level of consistency throughout both his candidacy and subsequent presidency. Conviction is not necessarily a bad virtue, certainly in a wartime environment. And it's somewhat comforting for the political left that amidst the talk of escalation, Obama set a timeline for the gradual withdrawal of those forces who will soon deploy.
 
Comforting, but perhaps not strategically wise. A pretty large consensus has developed among prominent foreign policy voices that Obama is trying to do two thing which, at their core, run counter to each other. First, the president made the case that our national security is at stake in the Afghan struggle, and that if the Taliban is allowed to regain control Afghanistan would once again become a safe haven and training ground for terrorists. Second, he claimed that the Afghan government, which of course we originally helped to install, would no longer be given a "blank check," meaning that Afghans (particularly their public officials) must start taking responsibility for their own security and domestic infrastructure.
 
But if the first point is true, and American security truly does depend upon a secure Afghanistan, then why would we set parameters for the amount of resources we devote toward war? And likewise, if we announce the intention to impose conditions and limits on our "checks," doesn't that signal that the fight itself isn't vitally important to national security, and may instead be one of choice?
 
More importantly, there's an issue of leverage at play here. The more often we use the sort of maximalist language that elevates the importance of our mission in Afghanistan, the less incentive the Afghan government has to assume greater ownership of the various issues at stake. In reality, the Afghan government needs the United States much more than the United States needs the Afghan government, but you wouldn't know that by the rhetoric U.S. leaders use. Does anyone think that Afghan leaders are really, truly afraid that the United States might decide to simply pack up and leave? If the goal is to build the Afghan government's capacity to manage, secure, and effectively govern its own country – and judging from the newly articulated U.S. strategy, it is – we're not going to induce the sort of local cooperation we need if we continue to foot the bill with no (or few) questions asked.
 
This is where the issue of blank checks once again rears its head. Obama prominently mentioned this factor in his West Point speech laying out his new strategy, saying that we would not continue to give unconditional and permanent support. But in the same breath, he declared Afghanistan vital to the security of the United States. It's difficult to see how those two ideas can work in concert. Obama, as is his nature, seemed to identify a middle ground between the "all-in" and "go home" crowds.
 
Neither group got what it wanted. But both appear to share two things: A healthy skepticism, and the opinion that this is now undeniably Obama's war. 

 

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This is an excellent analysis of Obama's speech and his new Afghan policy. As Linden points out, the president does try to find a middle ground in the strategy, he's acting consistently with his campaign rhetoric, and there are lots of reasons to be skeptical. It's hard to believe that Afghan leaders have any reason to fear that Obama will actually pull large numbers of troops out should those leaders fail to step up, should they fail to reduce the corruption and greatly increase their commitment to taking on their own security. That said, if Obama decides to put real pressure on the Afghan leaders to make change, we probably won't know it. He'll do it privately, he may enlist other NATO leaders to apply their own pressure, and he'll make known the consequences of their failure to respond privately as well. Finally, we're seeing a lot of criticism in the mainstream media of the president's new strategy for Afghanistan. I'm looking for one of the critics to offer an alternative that has better chances for success.
 
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Josh is a graduate of James Madison University where he earned a degree in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Communities.