Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.
With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.
As Sanger writes:
By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.
The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.
Given the difficulties in fighting in Afghanistan for more than a decade and the enormous shortcomings of our local allies, especially President Hamid Karzai, fatigue with the war is understandable. But in light of the revelations about the president’s decision-making process, it is now apparent that the administration lacked the one thing any country needs in war: a commitment to victory. Without it, the Afghan surge was just a blip on the radar screen and, unlike the Iraqi insurgents who knew President Bush meant business during the U.S. surge in that war, the Taliban were right to discount the possibility that President Obama was just as tough-minded. Even at the outset of the new surge it’s clear now the president saw it as merely a bloody prelude to a withdrawal with, as Sanger notes, no provision for what would happen if the Taliban start their own surge after the Americans leave.
The administration gives itself credit for having rethought strategy and concentrated instead on the real “good war” — fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But if, as Sanger reports, the administration had concluded that there had never been a coherent U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the same is certainly true of American objectives in Pakistan. In truth, the U.S. has no strategy in Pakistan other than to keep attacking terrorists in the tribal areas with drones, a tactic that is deadly but has no chance of ridding the area of trouble or maintaining Pakistan as an ally in the war against the Islamists. The only thing that recommends this plan is that it requires few American troops and allows the president to adopt the “lead from behind” posture with which he is so comfortable.
President Obama’s 2009 decision to stay the course in Afghanistan and use a surge to fight the Taliban was the sort of responsible action that gave the lie to his detractors’ assertion that he had little understanding of the strategic imperatives of fighting the country’s Islamist foes. But, as we now know, the applause he earned then was largely undeserved. His only real goal was to bug out of Afghanistan but to do so without having lost the country before he ran for re-election in 2012.
The result is a plan that is a disaster in the making which will create a mess that will be all too apparent in the years to come. That’s something he’s willing to live with if he is re-elected. Whether it is one that can be reversed by his successor, either in 2013 or 2017, remains to be seen.