Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Open thread: The Afghanistan speech 

I missed the Afghanistan speech last night on account of a business commitment, and now am sprinting to the airport to fly to Houston for a day of meetings. In my absence, please post your reactions and analysis in the comments below. Tell me what I should think!

To get the conversation going, here is Stratfor's take, as revealed in its Geopolitical Diary that went out in the wee hours this morning.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, speaking at West Point, laid out his new strategy for “concluding” the Afghan war. The short version is as follows: 30,000 additional U.S. troops will begin deployment at the fastest possible rate beginning in early 2010; the force’s primary goal will be to enable Afghan forces to carry on the war themselves; U.S. troops will begin withdrawing by July 2011 and complete their withdrawal by the end of the president’s current term.

Obama outlined a series of goals for U.S. forces, the four most critical of which STRATFOR will reproduce here. The first is to deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. The second is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government, largely by securing key population centers. The third is to strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government so that more Afghans can get into the fight. The fourth is to create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

“In many ways the new strategy seems less like an active military strategy than one of a series of mild gambles.”

Let us first look at the somewhat obvious points from STRATFOR’s point of view:

There isn’t a lot that you can do in 18 months, even with that many troops. You certainly cannot eradicate the Taliban. Even reversing the Taliban’s momentum as Obama hopes to do is a very tall order. And you might find it fairly difficult to root out the apex leadership of al Qaeda, especially if it is in Pakistan instead of Afghanistan. Simply pursuing that goal would require the regular insertion of forces into Pakistan, enraging the country upon which NATO military supply chains depend. Even more so, having full withdrawal by the end of Obama’s current term puts a large logistical strain on the force, giving it less manpower to achieve its goals — particularly once the drawdown begins in July 2011. For most of the period in question, the United States will have far fewer than the roughly 100,000 troops at the ready that the Obama policy envisions.

In many ways the new strategy seems less like an active military strategy than one of a series of mild gambles: that the force will be sufficient to (temporarily) turn the tide against the Taliban, that this shift will be sufficient to allow the Afghan army to step forward, and that this shift will be sufficient to allow U.S. forces to withdraw without major incident. That’s tricky at best.

Now for the less-than-obvious points:

Ramrodding 30,000 troops into Afghanistan immediately will severely tax the military. Bear in mind that the drawdown in Iraq has only recently begun, and forces pulled from Iraq will either need substantial time to rest and retool before they can do something else, which in many cases may to be shipped off to Afghanistan. The ability of U.S. ground forces to react to any problem anywhere in the world in 2010 just decreased from marginal to nonexistent. Many of America’s rivals are sure to take note.

However, by committing to a clear three-year timeframe, Obama is aiming for something that Bush did not. He is bringing the U.S. military back into the global system as opposed to its current sequestering in the Islamic world. The key factor that has enabled many states to challenge U.S. power in recent years — Russia’s August 2008 war with Georgia perhaps being the best example — is that the United States has lacked the military bandwidth to deploy troops outside of its two ongoing wars. If Obama is able to carry out his planned Iraqi and Afghan withdrawals on schedule, the United States will shift rapidly from massive overextension to full deployment capability.

And so states that have been taking advantage of the window of opportunity caused by American preoccupation now have something new to incorporate into their plans: the date the window closes.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 07:57:00 AM:

There isn’t a lot that you can do in 18 months, even with that many troops.

Au contraire. In his assessment, General McChrystal said the war would probably be won or lost in 18 months.  

By Anonymous Mara, at Wed Dec 02, 08:44:00 AM:

--"Ramrodding 30,000 troops into Afghanistan immediately will severely tax the military"

A week ago he was dithering and now he's ramrodding. Gotta love it.

--"The ability of U.S. ground forces to react to any problem anywhere in the world in 2010 just decreased from marginal to nonexistent. Many of America’s rivals are sure to take note."

So, in other words, Obama sent too many troops?? Well. In that case, we should thank our lucky stars he didn't accept McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops that the Republicans were urging him to do!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 09:39:00 AM:

Like you, TH, I'm old enough to remember Vietnam.

With respect, I think you should refrain from posting on the wars as long as the TH son is comfortably ensconced on the leafy campus of VA Tech. And particularly so when he has hair down to his shoulders thus completing the '70s retro-hippie look.

It's easy to advocate for continued war as long as someone else's sons, daughters, and siblings are doing the dying.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Dec 02, 10:17:00 AM:

Last Anon, a couple of points.

1. My son makes his own choices, as do the sons of people who oppose the war.

2. By your logic, only people who serve or (perhaps) somehow persuade their children to serve should express an opinion on whether we fight wars. My guess is that most doves would object to that rule.

3. I actually do not know what the right answer is in Afghanistan, and have not advocated for the continuation of that war. I'm struggling with it a bit. Not clear where you got the idea that I was advocating for the surge there.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 02, 11:01:00 AM:

"A week ago he was dithering and now he's ramrodding. Gotta love it."

'Dithering' = twiddling his thumbs without making a decision. Which he did, for several months.

'Ramrodding' = ordering a sudden rushed deployment into a landlocked, mountainous country without modern infrastructure. It took almost six months to get the surge in Iraq properly underway, a country with modern highway systems built to support the weight of battle tanks and safe ports (via Kuwait and Umm Qasr). With Afghanistan, it'll likely be worse, depending on just how many and how much equipment has to be flown in and what (if any) can come in by rail through Russia. (which was the bone we were tossed for selling out the Poles)

If there's an 18 month window for this, and it takes 9 months to get all the troops and equipment in place, then they have 9 months to start withdrawing again. Shove em in, yank em out. Ramrod. Brilliant.

"So, in other words, Obama sent too many troops?? Well. In that case, we should thank our lucky stars he didn't accept McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops that the Republicans were urging him to do!"

Doesn't make a lick of strategic difference if there are 10,000 uncommitted troops or 0. 10,000 are too few to counter our enemies on their own anyway; we'd be entirely reliant upon Reserves or other military services to make the difference.

But I think Stratfor is overstating some stuff here. 1) they give the Georgia incident way too much importance, because they predicted it and were on top of it when it happened. It was not a 'challenge to US power,' it was a Russian re-assertion in their near-abroad. Construing every independent action by any nation in the world that the US doesn't like as a 'challenge to US power' is silly. 2) Claiming that US ground forces now have no ability to respond elsewhere in the world is ridiculous; it assumes that any formation which has rotated back from the Sandbox is rooted in place and helpless, which is likely, uh, not true. At the very least, troops which *live* overseas (Korea, Okinawa, Europe) can make their presence felt in the immediate theater. And again, this ignores the existence of reserve units and even the possibility of rapid redeployment units (like airborne infantry) moving out of one place and into another.

That said, the general conclusion (that foreign rivals are going to have a playtime) is sound. 'The Army and Marines are busy and the President is a weakling; time to expand our interests.' Or, in Afghanistan, 'alright shebaab, let's keep our heads down until summer 2011 and then we can own this place!'

"It's easy to advocate for continued war as long as someone else's sons, daughters, and siblings are doing the dying."

How melodramatic. By this logic, the President (who was a young child living abroad during Vietnam, and who has two small girls) is morally unqualified to advocate the war that he just gave a speech about and is Constitutionally empowered to wage. Which is, of course, retarded.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 11:18:00 AM:


I'm with Dawnfire82 here - Stratfor's reasoning is way off. The Army and the Marines have been fighting the GWOT, with support from the AF and Navy. Both of these services have lots of capabilities right now, as they did last year, and the year before that. The Army and Marine Corps are tired, but even so, Bush authorized increases in their sizes starting in 2007.
Obama's speech was an abomination (as is his presidency), as is his plan. The logistics of Afghanistan are a nightmare - and announcing a withdrawal date is idiotic.  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Wed Dec 02, 11:29:00 AM:

I agree with TH that Afghanistan is a tough call. You can make a good argument that we should exit in a strategic retreat, and regroup to fight the battles of our choosing.

I think you could also make a good argument that Afghanistan is worth winning, even at a prolonged cost.

I'm not impressed, however, with the path the President has chosen. He's putting up a little fight. He's not aiming to win the fight. This is a guy that doesn't openly fight and when he does picks on people, like friends, and little people who would never expect hostility from him.

I can't believe he made a speech to thousands of cadets and officers and never said, "We will win!" "We will defeat these murderous terrorists!" "You will come home with honor and dignity!" "All of us, especially our friends throughout the world, will honor and respect what you are about to do." Those are the things you say when you send young men and women off to war. You don't say, "we going to go over there, push the dirt around a bit, create a few bastions, lose a few good soldiers, and come home." Those soldiers will smell defeat before they leave. You do not demoralize soldiers and then send them off to war. It's no wonder they sat so stone faced when not asleep.

The problem with Stratfor's projection that in withdrawing the US will recuperate our capabilities, is that no one in their right mind really believes that if Obama has his way we will have any significant capabilities that makes us relatively strong. He rejects American exceptionalism and his vision is a world where we are just one among many. I seriously doubt that all the sacrifice that has gone into building this country was founded on the hope that we could rise to the level of Zimbabwe.

As soon as he doesn't have a war to fight, he will slash America's defense. So those capabilities Strafor envisions will not materialize.

It's going to be a long two or three years.


By Blogger Diogenes, at Wed Dec 02, 11:55:00 AM:

Victor Davis Hanson in "The Future of Western War," Imprimis, Nov 2009 (hillsdale.edu/imprimis) explains Obama's paralysis in defending America, and why it is deadly....for us.

"All of the usual checks on the tradition of Western warfare are magnified in our time....We who created the Western way of war are very reluctant to resort to it due to post-modern cynicism, while those who didn't create it are very eager to apply it due to pre-modern zealotry. And that's a very deadly combination."  

By Anonymous Squealer, at Wed Dec 02, 12:44:00 PM:

Wait a minute. Maybe I missed it, but where in the President's speech did he say that US troops would complete their withdrawal by the end of the president’s current term?

I also did not hear a promise we would start removing troops in July 2011, just that it would be our goal to do so. It would seem to me the President could reduce forces by 10 or 20,000 in 2011 and leave the remaining forces there indefinitely if conditions on the ground warranted it.  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Wed Dec 02, 12:55:00 PM:

Every successful nation-building exercise (or re-building exercise) that the US has carried out has taken decades to succeed, not years or months. I don't see howAfghanistan could be any different. We didn't even call it nation-building at the time, and there probably would not have been enough political capital available to survive calling it "nation-building".

We're *still* in Germany, Japan, and Korea -- and we have the enthusiastic support of those nations (at least their governments, and any citizen rational enough to have any international perspective) for being there, and we (and they) enjoy tremendous economic and political gains by being in those countries. I don't think Afghanistan has the same economic potential as any of those countries, but I do think that our strategic interests are served by a multi-decade commitment. We gain credibility by imposing our will on a tough environment, and routing a tough opponent. We demonstrate a commitment to home rule, that American military involvement does not equal imperialism or domination. We show a commitment to our existing allies in the region. And we put in place the only credible bargaining chip we have with Iran -- the threat of actual military force, as opposed to limp, laughable negotiations.

With multi-decade commitments, no one can wait you out -- not your military enemies, and not your homegrown political enemies, and not even the whims or apathy of your own (voting) public.

When I first heard that Obama would commit 30,000 troops -- I was relieved. Years ago, I admit that I was somewhat surprised when the Iraq surge began to succeed, but once I understood why it was succeeding, I began to believe that we had the military power, the political commitment, and the intelligence and adaptability to make a profoundly positive impact in the Middle East. Positive in benefits for us, positive in regional stability, positive in human rights, positive in the possibility of economic development and prosperity. And I still believe that.

Except for Obama. Except for this limp-wristed, and politically calculated, non-commitment. 3 years is jack shit, when you take into account that the first year will be deployment, and the last year will be "exiting". 3 years is Obama's prayer that he can get re-elected on the stance of, "Hey, I wimped out in Afghanistan, just like you wanted me to!"

I'm appalled -- but I'm not surprised any more. I grew up in a blue-collar factory-town Democrat household. But 2008 was the first time I voted for a Republican for president. It certainly will not be the last time, if Obama is what the Democrats have to offer.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 01:13:00 PM:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.


More men, but same principle.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 05:41:00 PM:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.


We should leave after making it clear that nuclear weapons will be used if the warlords allow anyone to use the area as a base for attacks against the USA or it's interests.  

By Blogger Country Squire, at Wed Dec 02, 05:47:00 PM:

Anon 9:39 AM,

I am also old enough to remember Vietnam. You seem to have conveniently forgotten that our current military is an all volunteer force. The lack of a draft renders your comment about the TH Teenager and a "leafy campus" all the more unkind since it would seem you were insinuating some sort of evasion of duty, as was popular "back in the day.

TH shares his family with us from time to time, mostly in the guise of a proud father. Does someone really need to tell you that the children are off limits in political discussions?

I believe you owe our host and his son an apology.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 07:42:00 PM:

What I don't get is why the five military brass who sit on Obama's War Council (Gates, Petraeus, Lute, Eikenberry and Jones) and all of whom served under the previous administration are willing to be associated with Obama's silly assbackwards plan to give a heads up to our enemy that we have an exit plan when the threat of indefinite engagements have worked so [cough] well up to now?  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Wed Dec 02, 10:19:00 PM:

"It's easy to advocate for continued war as long as someone else's sons, daughters, and siblings are doing the dying"

Nice one, Anon. In one fell swoop you have managed to insult our nation's volunteers, your blog host, his family and anyone else within visual distance of your post who has a whit of common sense.

Obama dug his own hole when he emphasized Bush's "mistake" of not pursuing the front in Afganistan ("the real war")and now his chickens have come home to roost.

Bush was, if anything, too clever by half in dragging the GWOT to a geographically centralized region with friendlier terrain and relatively less political chaos. Bush's problem was not articulating his reasons for doing it...but that does not make them less wise or valid.

Iraq was a winnable war. Afganistan is a hellhole that will require a massive investment of treasure to produce an equal result.

Unfortunatley the congressional DOLT factor failed to realize this and Bush failed to win the minds of the majority of Americans...especially since he had to fight not just the Taliban and Al Queda, but the American Media and half of Congress.

A No Brainer, actually. Perfect situation for our no-brainer-in-chief.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 02, 10:40:00 PM:

"It's easy to advocate for continued war as long as someone else's sons, daughters, and siblings are doing the dying"

So you advocate a return to conscription (which I consider tantamount to slave labor)?

I don't believe that the current VOLUNTEERS in the armed forces really want any conscripts in the ranks.

But feel free to throw red herrings if you're just trolling.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 02, 11:16:00 PM:

"Wait a minute... withdrawal by the end of the president’s current term?"

To my knowledge, that's a political inference based on the dates given and has not been explicitly stated by the Administration.

"I also did not hear a promise... if conditions on the ground warranted it."

Good ears, but I think you're hearing the waves and missing the ocean. (like that? I made it up)

The July 2011 date is "locked in."

From the link: "After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel."

Sounds to me like a concrete withdrawal date is organic to this strategy.


I think I've got a bona fide DF82 prediction here. Ready? Here goes.

We're going to fail, but we're going to do it in style, and on purpose, as a deliberate strategic withdrawal/political facade.

I expect a ratcheting down of Taliban activity in Afghanistan next year as they go to ground for a bit (everyone does; that's what I would do if I were them) which will be sold as 'success,' justifying the scheduled withdrawal and much finger-wagging by Democrats about 'we told you so.' Things will start getting bad again by mid-2012 as the Taliban step back up to get some pot shots at some infidels before they leave and to strangle the Afghan government. The US will withdraw, and the people behind this will simply shrug and say, 'we tried to save Bush's ridiculous little war and we had some success with our mini-surge, but there was never any long-term hope; it's fucking Afghanistan.' Troops will be home, Afghanistan will be as written off as it was in 1995 (after all, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink, right?), and the President will be held relatively blameless by the electorate.

That's the plan folks; we're going to try to lose with style. Peace with honor, redux.

What makes me want to vomit is that it isn't all that bad of a plan. Sure, it's morally reprehensible to people like Anonymous 9:39 to spend American troops' lives for political purposes, but that's basically what armies are for. We simply don't have the same kinds of strategic interests in Afghanistan to warrant the levels of commitment necessary for ultimate success there as we had in Iraq. The biggest reasons were the destruction of Al Qaeda and the maintenance of US military credibility, and I think that each have been adequately achieved. After the 2001-2002 devastation, AQ threw down the gauntlet on home turf in Iraq and were slaughtered by a military force that virtually everyone had written off as defeated (a feat for which President Bush deserves everlasting credit; no terrorist dipshit can boast of freedom to attack the a paper tiger US as bin Laden once did).

There are other reasons to maintain force in Afghanistan (Iran; the furtherance of democracy and freedom for its own sake) but this President doesn't have the intent (or the balls) to pursue policies that would NEED Afghanistan-based forces in the medium and long term.

Bonus: Regional terrorists who have any brains will refrain from striking at the (continental) US until the withdrawal is apace or complete, to avoid a policy reversal.

Voila: Obama gets us out of an 'unwinnable' war (as evidenced by its going to hell in a handbasket just as we leave) and manages to prevent terrorist strikes from the area. Hero! If only he can keep the media in his back pocket...

While not the policy I would advocate, it's not strategically irrational. And it actually looks three steps ahead, so its relatively clever. I wonder if the Russians helped with this?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Dec 03, 03:03:00 PM:

Slightly off topic, but would reinstating a draft make military policy any more coherent? Not that there is any political will to do so.  

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