obama's war
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Obama's New Strategy (March '09)

George Packer The New Yorker

George Packer

The official strategy, which Obama announced in March, is to focus more narrowly than in the past on disrupting and defeating Al Qaeda, because that's our main strategic interest here. That's where the problem started. That's the threat to us. And I think Obama wanted to keep the public invested in this war. The only way to do that was to remind them that it was about Al Qaeda at the beginnin, and it's still about Al Qaeda.

But the problem with that is it leads to a whole series of consequences which take you well beyond defeating Al Qaeda to defeating, or at least pushing back, their allies, the Taliban, who are a sort of diffuse and multi-headed force, and to stabilizing and helping to shore up not just one but two governments, two weak and perhaps even collapsing governments, one in Kabul, the other in Islamabad.

So we began in this strategy with a narrowing of the focus onto the relatively small number of terrorists on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we end up with two countries as our projects, and with a whole new government office under Ambassador Richard Holbrooke that's responsible for the civilian side of the strategy. That's the official version.

And I think it has, if not a contradiction in it, at least a problem in it, which is that it seems to narrow our goals, but it widens our means and it widens our responsibilities and our commitments. And I think that's why there's a danger that the public is not going to be onboard for very long and why so many Obama administration officials have told me, "We have about 12 months." And that was a couple of months ago. So the clock is ticking in their minds. ...

Privately, officials are remarkably sober, clear-eyed; some are pessimistic. But once you get into government and into a particular problem it's very difficult to say, "We can't do this." There's no premium on, "We can't do this." Everything pushes towards: "We can do this better and improve it. And then maybe in a year or two we'll start to see some success."

And so having reoriented the whole of American foreign policy in a new direction with most of the chips in Afghanistan and its neighbor, Obama has turned the attention and the hopes of his foreign policy group onto improving things here.

And so they're overwhelmed by the need to produce results, because everything is riding on it. And that means they may well be making superhuman efforts that are not going to produce good results. And I think the best of them know that may be the case.

That sounds like a dangerous kind of situation, allowing for kind of mission creep, where the best in Americans' eagerness to help has found a channel for all those ambitions, but the project is enormous.

There's a huge amount of room for creep here. Because again, we've got two countries, and in one country, a widening war, and in the other country almost 200 million people and a society and government in crisis. So the potential for American investment is limitless. And we do have a trait of thinking our intentions are good enough. But I do think the people I've talked to who are working on this are smarter than good intentions. ...

... [And in Afghanistan] it can start to sound like nation building.

It is nation building. It absolutely is. Holbrooke says it's not, that there's already a nation here, that there has been an Afghan nation for centuries. That's true. The cliché is that Afghanistan is a nation looking for a state and Pakistan is a state looking for a nation. ... But it's absolutely nation building.

Justice is a key focus, trying to train a reasonably effective police force, which Afghanistan woefully lacks, cleaning up the prison system, which is a disaster, and trying to get the Afghans to build these local courts with judges and prosecutors so that Afghans can have their disputes resolved instead of having to turn to the Taliban to do it, which, you know, is a brutal but swift form of justice, and which Afghans say is better than no justice at all, which is what they have had under the Karzai administration.

Corruption is a pervasive problem here. No one really knows how to stop corruption. But I think Holbrooke is making it a subject of conversation, both with the Afghan public and in private with leaders in Afghanistan regularly.

Everything is geared towards getting us out of here. It's all about trying to get Afghanistan and its institutions to where they can do these things themselves. But to do that, we're increasing our spending, our personnel, our efforts enormously. And that always runs the risk of having the opposite effect, of making it something we do for them instead of helping them to do. So there is a conundrum in nation building and in any beefed-up effort, which this is. So that's the civilian side. And that's Holbrooke's project.

Although there's another piece to it, which hasn't really taken off yet, but that's negotiations --

With the Taliban?

With the Taliban, is the only way to get us out of here.

Seth Jones Author, The Graveyard of Empires

Seth Jones

Can you summarize what is new in the new policy? Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not a new idea. What have we seen in the last few months that you feel is generally a departure?

I think what is new in Afghanistan is the U.S. attention to pushing personnel into country. There's been a significant increase in civilians in Afghanistan. It's actually led to bed problems in the U.S. embassy. There are not enough beds to house the civilians coming in. It's led to an increase in military forces into Afghanistan, including into southern Afghanistan. So I think, fundamentally, there's been a change in resources, of military intelligence and diplomatic resources, into Afghanistan.

And top-level attention.

Clearly, top-level attention. The wars in Afghanistan now get regular daily attention from the media, and from the White House, in a way that simply did not exist under the previous administration.

David Kilcullen Adviser to Gen. McChrystal

David Kilcullen

One of the big strategic shifts is the use of language now which talks about Pakistan and Afghanistan as the same theater. Now we talked about Af-Pak long before the Obama administration came about, but the public use of that term, and the description of it as the Afghanistan-Pakistan campaign, sends a new message to people about how the administration is going to think about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The second key thing in that March 27, 2009 speech -- the president said our objective here is fundamentally about counterterrorism. And he said the objective is to prevent the return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, to ensure that Al Qaeda doesn't have a significant presence in Pakistan. And the means to that end, which he articulated, was counterinsurgency.

So he's actually saying it's a counterterrorism objective -- Al Qaeda -- but you can't get there by just doing counterterrorism. You also have to do a certain minimum level of counterinsurgency in order to secure the people, make them feel safe enough that they're not vulnerable to Al Qaeda coming back, and build a relatively prosperous economic structure and a functioning political structure to prevent the re-emergence of terrorism.

So they're articulating a fairly narrow objective, but then they're stating a fairly broad way of getting to that objective. And I think this is going to be one of the interesting issues in how that policy plays out because to some extent there's a mismatch between objective and method here. And there was some fairly sharp internal debate within the administration in putting that policy together about whether to go with a counterterrorism-only approach, whether to go with a counterinsurgency approach, or some combination of the two.

And I think what we've ultimately ended up with is a sort of squaring the circle where, yeah, we're articulating a counterterrorism objective, but we're still doing a fairly broad counterinsurgency set of activities to get to that objective.

Is the policy too ambitious?

I don't think we know yet. I think that if your objective is to rescue a rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and turn it around, I think we have a reasonably good chance of success. I think we're going to start to see some bottoming out in the deterioration in Afghanistan. We may even start to see some improvement in Afghanistan in the next year or two depending on how the election goes and how things play out from there.

But I think that the sort of fly in the ointment in terms of the analytical structure is what do you do with Pakistan. And, in fact, as part of this review, one of the questions that somebody asked me was, "What do you think about the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan?"

And I said: "The problem in Afghanistan is we know what to do, we just don't know if we have the resources or the time available to do it. The problem in Pakistan is we're not really sure what to do."

So it's kind of a different order of problem. There's a very clear enemy and a very clear friendly side in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, it's kind of unclear as to who's on what side and whether, in fact, anyone is an enemy or an ally in that environment.

Rory Stewart Author, The Places in Between

As you heard the president's speech in March, what was your impression?

My impression was that it isn't really a major change from where we've been for the last few years. It's a re-statement of a conception that's become increasingly fashionable over the last four or five years, that somehow we need to address the underlying root causes of conflict. We need a one-time solution that's going to ensure that never again can Afghanistan become unstable. Never again could it be a position to host Al Qaeda.

And I listen to this and I just think it's a vision that seems unrealistic. You could put 20, 30 years' investment in Afghanistan and if you were lucky and skillful you could give it the kind of state structures of Pakistan. … But that, of course, would not really fulfill your U.S. national security objectives. It wouldn't achieve the kind of stability of which you dreamt. …

I think it must be possible to posit a different view of the world which says there are useful, constructive things the United States can do in the world to protect itself, to help other people, which don't involve totally fixing somebody else's state, which don't involve the deployment of more than 100,000 troops, which don't involve half bankrupting ourselves.

True, Afghanistan is one of 40 troublesome countries in the world. So the challenge for the Obama administration, the challenge for Americans in the next 20 years, is how to define something which is manageable, footprints in these countries which are affordable, legitimate, realistic and which would allow us to operate in Chad and Yemen and Somalia, rather than putting all our eggs in the Afghan basket and imagining that somehow if we just deploy enough resources we're going to be able to turn this whole thing around once and for all. …

Andrew Exum Adviser to Gen. McChrystal

President Obama has three problems. First, he has a problem selling this war to our allies, whose publics are much more nervous than our own.

He has a problem with his political opponents, who are going to be looking for every opportunity to criticize his handling of what has traditionally been perceived as a Democratic weakness, which is foreign policy and the waging of our nation's wars.

And then he's got a problem with his own base. I think that the left-wing chorus to get out of Afghanistan now is gathering in intensity and has been gathering for some time. ...

Given what you've seen recently even, would you plead for time?

I think that the president is well within his rights to evaluate this campaign, to ask for hard metrics to gauge the way in which we're going to measure our success or our failure, and to then adjust his policy and his strategic goals based upon the degree to which we are successful or fail.

I think that by naming Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal the commanding general in Afghanistan, he at least has to give him 18 months to try to right the ship, so to speak, in Afghanistan.

A lot of the changes that Gen. McChrystal can bring to the mission in Afghanistan, or that Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry, for that matter, can bring to the mission in Afghanistan, are not going to be able to be made over three, four months. They are long-term changes. And I think that these changes will start to take place, and we'll start to feel the effects in the spring of 2010, and that then, by summer, fall of 2010, at that point, it will be fair to start evaluating how the operations and strategy is going in Afghanistan. ...

Col. Andrew Bacevich (Ret.) Author, The Limits of Power

The president's in a difficult political problem with regard to Afghanistan that he himself has made more difficult by declaring it a necessary war, … by creating expectations about Gen. McChrystal's strategic review (PDF) and how that was going to be an important marker in thinking about policy. …

If he wants to reject the McChrystal recommendation, if he wants to take a course other than counterinsurgency, it's going to be very difficult politically for him to get away with that. And I think the two key players who can give him some political cover are Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen.

Now where do they stand on this matter? My reading of their public statements during the summer was that they were both wary of getting deeper into Afghanistan. That they were skeptics. More recently, however, they both seem to be indicating that they're going to throw their support behind Gen. McChrystal, or, more to the point, throw their support behind the notion of this open-ended war that's going to go on for another five or 10 years. …

He's boxed in?

I think so. I don't think it matters all that much, I don't think the president has to worry too much about being criticized from the right. I mean, he's going to be criticized from the right if not on the war in Afghanistan, on any number of other issues. …

But if the president alienates the core of his support, plunging more deeply into this war when many on the left or people like myself ... wary of an overly militarized foreign policy, then I think he could find the enormous public support that he had during much of the first year of his term in office ... collapsing pretty quickly.

McChrystal told us that it's ambitious, it's going to be difficult, but there's no alternative.

I reject that notion that there is no alternative. … In essence, to argue that there is no alternative is to take from the president the authority to make a decision. You're telling the president, "The only thing you can do, Mr. President, is to ratify the idea that we ourselves have concocted." And that ought to be unacceptable in the Oval Office. …

Is this unquestionably, at this point, Obama's war?

I think so. And the question is whether or not, [it is] going to be Obama's war in the same sense that Iraq became Bush's war, that Vietnam became Johnson's war; that it's going to be the one issue that consumes his presidency, the one thing, … for the rest of his time in office, reporters [are] going be asking, "When's it going to end? When will light become visible at the end of the tunnel? How many more soldiers are going to have to die? How many more hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be spent?"

That's what I fear he is inviting if he allows himself to be sold this counterinsurgency program.

But the president is a very shrewd man in the best sense of the word. And so I retain at least a smidgen of hope that he will understand the trap that he's being led into here, and therefore avoid it.

posted october 13, 2009

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