Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan surge

A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

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In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.

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Political Victory Out of Battlefield Defeats

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

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“Military All In But Obama Wasn’t”

Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

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Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

Then Sanger writes that “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The critical decisions about drawing down troops—with 32,000 departing by the end of September 2012—were apparently made by political aides in the White House without consulting General Petraeus in Afghanistan or other generals or, until the very end, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton.

This is breathtaking. Commanders on the ground and senior officials at the Department of Defense are not always right, and their recommendations do not always have to be followed by a president. But the commander-in-chief at least has an obligation to solicit their views and take them into careful consideration. Apparently Obama didn’t do that because he wanted to avoid the leaks that attended his previous decision-making process on Afghanistan in the fall of 2009. So he decided to end the surge in September 2012, which Sanger erroneously describes as “after the summer fighting season” (the fighting season actually lasts until late October or early November) and accurately describes as “before the election.” Meaning, of course, our presidential election.

This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics—namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge—about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.

Rest assured that if George W. Bush had so nakedly put his own political calculations front and center in making national security policy, he would have been flayed by the news media. Indeed, he was flayed for the “Mission Accomplished” banner and for supposedly invoking 9/11 for partisan advantage—and, most ironically of all, for supposedly disregarding the advice of senior generals by sending too few troops to Iraq. But Obama, it seems, is getting a pass for not even bothering to consult the very generals he appointed.

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Obama Abandons the “Good War”

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.

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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.

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