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Obama’s Muddled Thinking on Afghanistan

The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.

What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle:

President Obama has already ordered the withdrawal by September of the 33,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan last year. “The big debate,” a Defense official said, is “can you come up with another number for what happens over the next 12 months” after that drawdown. “The argument will once again be the military saying let’s keep it at 68,000,” the number of troops who will remain in September, “and [Vice President] Biden saying let’s get it down to 20,000 really quickly, with the reality somewhere in between.”

Although Biden lost the argument over the surge in late 2009, officials said the internal administration balance has shifted toward a steeper glide path that would put the Afghans in charge sooner rather than later, in conjunction with a political settlement.

This is a fair description, I believe, of the president’s deeply muddled thinking on the future of Afghanistan. It suggests that he will make future decisions as he made decisions in the past: on a split-the-difference model. In 2010, he tacitly endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to pursue a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy but provided the minimal amount of resources required—only about 30,000 extra troops, which was at the “high risk” side of the options offered by McChrystal. This was in essence an attempt to compromise between McChrystal and Joe Biden, who advocated sending even fewer troops and pursuing a lesser, counterterrorism-focused mission. Then in June of this year, Obama ordered the premature withdrawal of those 30,000+ troops—they will be pulled out by September 2012, well ahead of the recommendations of military commanders. Now, with military commanders asking to keep at least 68,000 troops through 2014, President Obama seems set to draw down much faster than they recommend—although not to the extent advocated by the most strident anti-war voices.

You can see the political logic of what Obama is doing: He is trying to please both hawks and doves. Unfortunately, war is not a realm where half measures are likely to succeed. Adopting an ambitious strategy, as we’ve done in Afghanistan, but not resourcing it adequately, as Obama has also done, is a recipe for slow-motion failure. It is a high-risk strategy that is likely to get a lot of troops killed and for no good reason. Paradoxically, sending more troops would actually reduce casualties by making it easier to dominate the battlefield.

Not only does this make little sense strategically, it makes little sense politically: Obama will get just as much flak for keeping 50,000 troops in Afghanistan
as he would for 68,000. But the higher number provides a greater chance of success; more troops still would heighten our chances even more. If we are going to fight in Afghanistan, Obama needs to go “all in” as President Bush did during the surge in Iraq. He should not pin his hopes on peace talks which are unlikely to go anywhere.