War Stories

A Brand-New Plan for Afghanistan

Obama’s troop withdrawal marks a dramatic—and risky—shift in strategy.

Obama announces his Afghanistan withdrawal plan

President Barack Obama’s decision to pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer—10,000 of them by the end of this year—reflects a scaling back of U.S. goals and strategy in the war. Either that, or it doesn’t make much sense.

The decision, which the president announced in a 15-minute national TV address Wednesday night, means that, over the next 15 months, all the “surge” troops that Obama ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009—one-third of the total number of U.S. forces in the country—will be going home. Their tours of duty would have been up by then anyway, but now they’ll be replaced not by a fresh rotation of American soldiers or Marines but rather by Afghan security forces. And over the subsequent months, Obama said, the U.S. drawdown will continue at a steady pace—until the end of 2014, when Afghan troops will provide the mainstay of their country’s security in every province.

The rationale is that we have made “substantial progress” toward the goal of defeating al-Qaida, reversing the Taliban’s momentum, and training Afghan security forces. A senior administration official said, in a briefing earlier in the day, that there is “no terrorist threat from Afghanistan,” at least not one capable of attacking the United States or its allies.

But by this logic, the president didn’t need to order a troop surge in the first place. There haven’t been many al-Qaida fighters, or Taliban militants with the ability or inclination to launch attacks beyond Afghan borders, for eight or nine years.

One reason why so few of these most militant terrorists have crossed the Pakistani border into Afghanistan is, of course, the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops. The question is whether these terrorists will remain bottled up after one-third of the American ground troops go home. The Afghan army has grown larger and stronger in the last couple of years, but will its troops be able to step in with the same, or at least sufficient, effectiveness? That’s one of the gambles in this decision.

Obama stressed that the most potent elements of U.S. military strength will not be at all affected by this drawdown—the special-operations commandos who have mounted nighttime raids on Taliban hideouts and the “drones” and other aircraft that have fired “smart bombs” on similar targets both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

But a question that has divided the administration from the start of its term in office is whether this strategy—known as “counterterrorism plus”—is enough. The chief advocate of CT-Plus has been Vice President Joe Biden, along with several members of the White House staff.

In the deliberations over Afghan war strategy that occupied the administration for much of the last few months of 2009, Biden was opposed by the majority of top military officers, as well as by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed for a counterinsurgency strategy, often abbreviated as COIN. One premise of COIN is that insurgency wars are contests for the loyalty of the population, so the aim is not simply to chase after bad guys (a game in which the bad guys can maintain the initiative) but to protect and control the population. To do this, a counterinsurgency force needs boots on the ground—lots of them—not just to sweep away the Taliban and other insurgents but to keep the areas secure, so the host nation’s government can then come in and provide basic services, thus winning favor and drying up support for the insurgents.

At the end of 2009, President Obama sided mainly with the COIN advocates but not entirely. He approved the deployment of 30,000 extra troops (in addition to the 68,000 already there), enough to pursue a COIN strategy in major cities and certain vulnerable provinces where Afghan forces would be able eventually to take over security roles—but not enough to pursue the strategy nationwide. He agreed with Biden that permitting an all-out COIN strategy was a recipe for endless war that might not succeed anyway; but he agreed with his military advisers that CT-Plus alone probably wouldn’t do the trick—wouldn’t reverse the Taliban’s momentum or help cultivate an allegiance to the Afghan government among the people.

As with the Iraq surge, on which this one was partly based, the idea was to buy enough time and to rack up enough gains—in security, popular trust, and competent governance—so that the Afghan military could recruit and train enough of its soldiers to provide for its own defense, and so that the Afghan government could build a loyal base among its people.

Obama said in his speech Wednesday night that significant progress had been made in these areas, enough so that the U.S. drawdown—the logical aftermath of a U.S. surge—can begin.

Yet many of the original COIN advocates, including Secretary Gates and several top military officers, have been arguing in recent weeks that the Afghans—the government and the armed forces—aren’t quite ready for a substantial American drawdown. The U.S. and NATO troops, with increasing assistance from the Afghans, have made substantial gains against the Taliban—but the pressure needs to be kept up, even stepped up, to sustain and build on those gains.

These advocates say that by beginning—and, even more, by announcing—a substantial troop withdrawal, Obama may be undermining and jeopardizing those gains. One of the biggest effects of the Iraqi surge was psychological. Suddenly, all the players perceived that the Americans were staying, and that affected everyone’s strategic calculations.

When Obama announced his surge in December 2009 at West Point, he simultaneously announced that he would begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. His reasons were in part to assure the Democratic Party that he wasn’t getting trapped in a quagmire and, more still, to warn Afghan President Hamid Karzai that our commitment wasn’t open-ended, that he had to start reforming his government, in order to build a sense of legitimacy among his people, while our troops were still there to provide security.

However, the Taliban and the Afghan people were also listening to the West Point speech, and all they heard was: “The Americans are leaving.” In an insurgency war, most of the population sits on the fence; they will side not only with those serving their interests but, just as important, with those who seem to be winning. And it looked like the American side wouldn’t be winning.

When Gen. David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he stepped up the raids and airstrikes on Taliban forces, in part to convince the local people that we were winning. Some officers and consultants reasoned that, once July 2011 rolled around and people saw that the United States was still there and fighting, they would conclude that maybe we weren’t leaving after all.

These same officers and consultants now worry that Obama’s announcement of an impending troop withdrawal—a withdrawal larger, or more accelerated, than some of his military advisers wanted—might wipe out this hope; that it could reaffirm the initial impression, by Afghan friends, foes, and neutrals, that we are leaving after all. Since the Taliban are Pashtun Afghans, they’ll be staying; and so, the fear is, many ordinary Afghans may side with the force that stays.

This is why the COIN advocates wanted Obama to withdraw only a few thousand troops over the next year. They wanted to buy more time to inflict damage on the Taliban, and to build up the people’s allegiance to the Afghan government, so that, by the time we did leave, the balance of power might be tipped more in our favor.

However, the case can be made—and the CT-Plus advocates have made it—that more time will in fact buy us little. Karzai’s government has not made the reforms he needs to make. If this sort of war is a contest for popular legitimacy between the government and the insurgents, Karzai’s government hasn’t gained much ground. The U.S. military has made much effort and sacrifice to give him security and thus the space that he needs to take political risks and make progress in building legitimacy; but he hasn’t taken advantage of that space.

So it’s a valid question, and one that falls on the COIN advocates to answer: How much more money should we spend, how many more lives should we sacrifice, to support a regime that isn’t bothering to build the loyalty of its own people—a regime whose ultimate interests appear to be much different from ours?

This isn’t to say that the United States and NATO should abandon Afghanistan. Nor is it remotely to say that this is what Obama is doing. Senior administration officials emphasized earlier in the day that there will still be 68,000 U.S. troops by the end of next summer and that the counterterrorism campaign—the raids and airstrikes advocated by the CT-Plus advocates—will continue with no reduction or let-up.

Meanwhile, the programs to train the Afghan forces, as well as to provide them with logistics, intelligence, and other forms of support and assistance, will remain the same—could possibly even be boosted. (Obama has left it to his commanders to decide how to pace the drawdown and how to reconfigure the U.S. forces that remain.)

The strategy is thus stripped down to its basics: to keep al-Qaida out; and to keep “degrading” the Taliban and other insurgents so they are incapable of taking over the government of Afghanistan or huge swaths of its territory. The United States and several other countries have a security interest in these goals, independent of what Karzai wants. Any war goal more ambitious than those vital interests may at this point be beyond us—not least because, as has been clear for a long time now, Karzai is doing everything he can to undermine those goals.

This isn’t to say that the critics of the accelerated drawdown are wrong. Obama’s actions, and even more his announcement of the actions, will make it harder for U.S. and Afghan troops to stave off the Taliban militarily and to win over the Afghan people politically.

But it may also send a message to Karzai that he really does have to get serious about reform. And, it may send a message to Afghanistan’s neighbors that they really do have to start playing an active role in helping to stabilize the country—or else risk the stability of their whole region. All along, officials from Obama, Gates, Clinton, and Petraeus on down have said that these kinds of wars tend to end not with a military victory but with a political settlement. If Obama couples his military drawdown with a surge in diplomacy pressure, this may all turn out for the best.