President Obama, Afghanistan and US National Security

President Obama, Afghanistan and US National Security

President Barack Obama announced last night that he will send 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers and marines to Afghanistan over the next seven months and that additional resources will be used to train Afghan security forces and bolster the Afghan government. This is a seriously flawed policy. The troop deployment and the appropriations will have no impact on the insignificant al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan; no significant success in controlling the growing Taliban presence; and will make only a limited contribution to nation-building in Afghanistan.

Moreover, adding these troops will further undermine the economic situation in the United States. This decision demonstrates that President Obama has not yet developed a strategic understanding of US national security. In an obvious effort to placate the critics of the Afghan buildup, the president said that he would begin a drawdown of these forces in the summer of 2011, giving the military less than a year to achieve its mission. It would have been far better to leave US forces at current levels and make the case for gradual withdrawal.

Although the military ignored the problem of Afghanistan in the 1990s and had no plans for using force for Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now pushing for a victory in this inhospitable land and predictably arguing that winning there is a matter of will on the part of the United States. Our military leaders blamed our failure in Vietnam on the absence of will on the part of the Congress, and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have positioned themselves to blame any failure in Afghanistan on the Obama administration’s lack of will. After making a series of ignominious decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara eventually learned that “wars generate their own momentum and follow the law of unanticipated consequences.” Afghanistan will prove no exception to that rule.

President Obama’s contention that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” does not make it so. This is a war of choice and now it is a war of Obama’s choosing. Moreover, it is wrong to link US and NATO’s military success to the bolstering of Afghanistan’s security forces. When will we learn that more troops in Afghanistan will not provide us with more leverage there or across the border in Pakistan? When will we learn that more troops will not make the Afghan army or police more efficient or more disciplined? When will we learn that more troops will not make the Afghan government less corruptible or President Hamid Karzai more capable? When will we learn that Afghan “governance” is a fiction and that not even more US troops, more capable Afghan forces and more security for the Afghan people will change the nature of a tribal culture that has been at civil war for the past 36 years?

The primitive logistical situation in Afghanistan, where there are few serviceable roads and no staging bases, will make it virtually impossible to deploy additional US forces in the six-month time period that the president has cited. The threat to delay or even cancel these deployments if the Afghan government doesn’t achieve certain benchmarks in stabilizing the political situation will encourage the Taliban to be more aggressive. Using benchmarks to create an exit strategy is particularly disingenuous; the inability to create good governance in Afghanistan should make it more compelling (not less) for a US presence if the Taliban is a genuine threat to US security. The deployment of a modest number of NATO forces from European countries, moreover, will compel the US to provide force protection for these contingents. The Taliban forces are probably not capable of a “Tet-like” offensive that ended public support for the war in Vietnam 41 years ago, but the Obama administration will remain hostage to the possibility of such a development.

The unfortunate decision to make the announcement of a troop increase at West Point, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious military academy, worsens the problem for President Obama because it joins him to his two immediate predecessors; both contributed to the militarization of American national security policy. President Bill Clinton deferred to the military and refused to press for a ban on land mines, the creation of an international criminal court and the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; President Obama is still dragging his heels on these issues. Nearly eight years ago at West Point, President George W. Bush announced the doctrine of pre-emptive war, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Bush also walked away from arms control and disarmament, which the Pentagon has opposed over the past 50 years, and endorsed huge increases in defense spending. President Obama is moving positively on renewing a strategic arms control agreement with Russia, but has not really pressed the “reset” button with Russia that would allow greater progress on a variety of proliferation and regional issues. He also has deferred to the military in making key personnel appointments in the field of national security.

Henry Kissinger remarked recently that President Obama reminded him of a “chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games. But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.” The president appointed foreign policy “czars” for the most intractable problems, but this has merely complicated the policy process. Richard Holbrooke soon wore out his welcome in Kabul; George Mitchell was never really welcome in Jerusalem; and Dennis Ross never got through the front door in Tehran. Only ten months into the presidency, Obama has no adviser with strategic vision; he is already relying more heavily on his domestic political advisers than on his foreign policy specialists. And now the president has committed himself to “finishing the job” in Afghanistan of all places. No outside power has ever finished the job in Afghanistan; the forces of history are not on his side.