Schedules Without Milestones

The media are all a-twitter over President Obama’s announcement yesterday that American forces in Afghanistan would be reduced to 10,000 and removed from the country entirely by the end of 2016:

President Obama revealed his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan on Tuesday, announcing that a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops will remain there for one year following the end of combat operations in December. That number will be cut in half at the end of 2015, and reduced at the end of 2016 to a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy.

The plan, despite White House warnings early this year of a possible “zero option,” is largely in line with what the U.S. military had requested. It also is in line with what NATO and other international partners said was necessary for them to retain a presence in Afghanistan.

Missing from the president’s statement are any definition of what has been accomplished since 2008 or will be accomplished by 2016 other than the passage of time. I think the problem is rooted in this statement:

Asked about the reason for the post-2014 timetable, a senior official said, “We never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan.” Obama decided early in his first term that his objective would not be “eliminating the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” the official said, but preventing al-Qaeda from again attacking the United States.

When we acted to remove the Taliban from control of Afghanistan that’s precisely what we committed to. If Afghanistan is, indeed, the “good war” as opposed to Iraq’s “bad war”, then preserving whatever gains have been made there must be worthwhile, too.

Missing, too, from the president’s remarks are how the Afghanistan military will be able to secure the country without U. S. support or how U. S. material support for Afghanistan’s military will be maintained in the absence of the U. S. forces there that ensure American political support for it. We have seen this movie before.

Afghanistan is incapable of supporting a military that is capable of defending it and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Update

The editors of the New York Times echo my remarks:

It is reasonable to ask how two more years of a sizable American troop presence — which one official said could cost $20 billion in 2015 — will advance a stable Afghanistan in a way that 13 years of war and the 100,000 troops deployed there at the peak were unable to guarantee. Mr. Obama insists the objectives will be limited to using Special Operations forces to disrupt threats posed by Al Qaeda and to train and advise Afghan security personnel, pursuits American troops have been deeply engaged in throughout the war.

He does not claim that the residual force will ensure Afghanistan’s success. But administration officials say — and this is the only argument that makes some sense — that a continued, albeit much smaller, American military role would provide a stabilizing bridge at a sensitive time when Afghanistan is choosing a new leader to succeed President Hamid Karzai. There also are doubts about how much Congress and the international community will be willing to invest in Afghanistan if American troops, along with a much smaller contingent of NATO forces, are not in the country.

I strongly suspect that the answers to these questions will not be forthcoming.

So do the editors of the Washington Post:

The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama’s previous choices proved out. But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent — consistently bad. Iraq has slid into something close to civil war, with al-Qaeda retaking territory that U.S. Marines once died to liberate. In Syria, al-Qaeda has carved out safe zones that senior U.S. officials warn will be used as staging grounds for attacks against Europe and the United States. Libya is falling apart, with Islamists, secularists, military and other factions battling for control.

We hope Afghanistan can avoid that fate. But the last time the United States cut and ran from there, after the Soviet Union withdrew, the result was the Taliban takeover, al-Qaeda’s safe havens and, eventually, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after which everyone said, well, we won’t make that mistake again.

and

For years the United States promised to be a partner to a democratic Afghanistan, to help ensure that girls can keep going to school and to lock in the gains that have been won at such a high price by U.S. and other NATO troops. Mr. Obama’s implicit message Tuesday was: “Not so much.” If al-Qaeda can wait out the United States, it may get another chance. If Afghans have thrown their lot in with the Americans, they will be left on their own.

The president cannot have his cake and eat it, too. If President Bush erred in attacking Afghanistan and removing the Taliban, President Obama should have acknowledged that much earlier and withdrawn our forces years ago. Thousands of American lives would have been saved. If President Bush did not err, can whatever has been achieved there be maintained with the course of action on which President Obama is embarked?

3 comments… add one

  • michael reynolds

    So the only choices are 1) Bush was wrong so we should have left6 years ago, or,
    2) Bush was right so we have to stay there forever and ever?

    How about Bush was right, and we tried to get Bush’s gamble to pay off, but in the end we became convinced we were doing more harm than good?

    Or, Bush was wrong, but since we were in we tried to pull it off, didn’t work, so now we’re leaving?

    Or, there comes a point at which the Afghan government has to sink or swim on its own, and as long as we’re there they won’t make the hard choices?

  • How about Bush was right, and we tried to get Bush’s gamble to pay off, but in the end we became convinced we were doing more harm than good?

    What material national security objectives have been accomplished in Afghanistan since 2005? Be specific. If you can’t be specific, it’s because there aren’t any.

    Or, Bush was wrong, but since we were in we tried to pull it off, didn’t work, so now we’re leaving?

    Not working was implicit in the invasion. Increasing the operational tempo, President Obama’s contribution to the mess, did not achieve victory. There was never a victory to be had at a price we’d be willing to pay.

    Or, there comes a point at which the Afghan government has to sink or swim on its own, and as long as we’re there they won’t make the hard choices?

    Look at Afghanistan’s GDP. Anything other than complete disinterest would reveal that Afghanistan will not have the resources to “swim on its own” for the foreseeable future. As to “hard choices” we either have strategic objectives there or we don’t.

    And then there are the moral obligations we’ve undertaken, the many promises we’ve made both under Presidents Bush and Obama. Those don’t just evaporate to satisfy a timetable.

  • steve

    “What material national security objectives have been accomplished in Afghanistan since 2005? Be specific. If you can’t be specific, it’s because there aren’t any.”

    The goal was to build the Afghan army up so that it could maintain security for the country after we left. At the same time, it was hoped that letting the Afghans elect their own govt will lead to a stable and better govt. Our failure to achieve these goals does not mean that we did not have them. It means we dont know how to accomplish them. You might make the case we just arent willing to commit long enough to accomplish them but I would disagree. We dont know how to do it since the longer we stay the less welcome we are and we will never understand the culture well enough to make it work.

    Steve

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