Obama’s Afghan Indecision Carries Costs

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President George W. Bush painted a clear view of the world with his “axis of evil” speech and backed it up with military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While many around the world resented his muscle flexing, few doubted that Bush was prepared deploy military force.  How things have changed on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

For better or for worse, one of President Bush’s most conspicuous characteristics was his decisiveness in foreign affairs.  But wars are never popular and the promise of more peaceful approaches always carries public appeal.  Perhaps it was inevitable in the cycle of superpower politics that such resolution would be followed by vacillation. 

Obama is vacillating on Afghanistan

Obama is vacillating on Afghanistan

One month ago these columns described General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan as a “seminal” moment in Barack Obama’s presidency.  The decision placed President Obama in a position where he could not satisfy all his political supporters.  How would he react? 

Today, the focus is more on when he will make a decision.  The White House has initiated an overarching review of the Afghan conflict that will take around one month to complete, meaning that a decision could be made by the end of October.  On the other hand, it could drag on. 

By contrast, the President acted swiftly to sign a $787 billion spending bill in the name of stimulating the economy.  Added to which, he initially set an extremely tight deadline for health care reform, asserting that the country was at a “breaking point”.  But neither of these pieces of legislation were as urgent as the choice now facing the Administration on Afghanistan. 

Now the question begs whether the strategic review is merely a political tactic to give cover to an underlying unwillingness to make a decision.  After all, the President ordered additional troops to Afghanistan as soon as he took office.  Do we now conclude that this deployment took place on the hoof, or was such a review deemed unnecessary nine months ago? 

Whatever the answers, and whatever the ultimate decision, Obama’s delay runs the clear risk of leading all parties in Afghanistan to believe that America is losing its will to lead the fight.  This can only encourage the Taliban and its allies to maintain their incursion.  Equally, it discourages the U.S.’s partners and undermines troop morale. 

Britain’s Army Chief just stated that more troops would mean fewer casualties.  If America’s political leaders aren’t sure whether its military should even stay in Afghanistan, why should soldiers from various NATO countries be risking life and limb? 

Hesitancy from the White House also feeds concerns that the war effort will in future be conducted through a political rather than a military prism.  Instead of a military strategy put together by the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, we could get one concocted by politicians and their advisers in Washington, DC.  When it comes to military insight Barack Obama is no John McCain. 

Given the impact such micromanagement had in Vietnam, and the propensity for political generals to make decisions based on sentiment or popularity with the voting public rather than hard battlefield facts, it is understandable that General McCrystal has openly lobbied for his plan overseas.  After all, Congressional leaders, at the behest of the White House, are preventing him from testifying about his plan in Washington, DC. 

President Obama is right to worry that a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan could derail his health care dream.  But shouldn’t military judgment be something other than a political calculation?  Doesn’t this decision deserve to be made based on the facts of the conflict? 

President Obama’s inability to make an expeditious decision does not bode well for future U.S. foreign policy.  And, while the President might welcome any evidence of a contrast with his predecessor, vacillation also carries a cost.  Not only will it lead to needless military casualties but the rest of the world will draw lessons from it that are unlikely to serve U.S. interests.

6 Comments add one

  1. kiwi says:

    Perhaps an alternative theory is worthy of, at least, consideration.

    Can it be that Obama is actually considering the political, geographic and ‘winnability’ realities of America’s role in Afghanistan? There is a significant history of failure to tame the Taliban and its allies that stretches back way past either of the two most recent US Presidents. An under-equipped and strategically light Soviet Union failed. An over-equipped and strategically strong US (and allies) campaign is going nowhere. One could posit that the surges in US presence in the area were a reaction from an enraged but impotent President Bush whose post-9/11 promises to his electorate were spectacularly unfulfilled. Bush Jnr’s promises to a shocked nation that his Administration would inflict a death rattle on terrorism were unfulfillabe at best and dangerouse at worst. His Administration’s failure to achieve his promise led to the disasters of the WMD debacle, Gitmo, waterboarding and other excesses. Finally Bush turned to Afghanistan in an attempt to placate a populace becoming increasingly concerned at the number of body bags returning to America. Obama inherited the unwinnable. He now faces the unenviable task of writing many many more letters to grieving spouses and familites of dead American forces as this war continues. And this war continues without much evidence of success. There are, of course, very significant geopolitical underpinnings to American’s adventures in the hills and I do not for a moment suggest that withdrawal is any kind of acceptable option. But I do wonder whether Obama’s apparent indecision over his Generals’ very unsubtle ‘recommendations’ might indicate that there is a more rational and strategically thoughtful process underway – and if that is so, it has much to commend it in comparison to the Bush ‘sheriff with a pair of six guns’ approach.

  2. Gavino says:

    Many thanks for your incisive comment, Kiwi. Of course, I don’t share your views but I do hope that Obama is carefully “considering the political, geographic and ‘winnability’ realities of America’s role in Afghanistan”. That is welcome, but he has also had nine months to do this since taking office. He has waited at least 4 weeks to initiate it since receiving his General’s plan. All this could and should have already been carried out before now. The fact that he only spoke to McChrystal once in 70 days suggests that he has had little interest in what has been happening in Afghanistan. It took a jolt from the media (McChrstal’s “60 Minutes” interview on CBS) to get something going. Amazing really. The review could serve a useful purpose but it wasn’t conceved in the best circumstances and this delay has its consequences too.

  3. kiwi says:

    And now we converge in agreement. My views lie more generally with yours, but I thought it important to track some history, while at the same time not resiling from the fundamental importance of the decision that Obama must come to.

  4. Dancer says:

    Just to be accurate historically, the US supported the Mujahideen during the pre and post Soviet invasion of Afghan. (support began with Jimmy Carter, by the way). It was only after the Soviets withdrew and there was no one left running the country, only disparate bands of warlords, that the Taliban was able to fill the power vacuum. They really took over in the late 1990′s when Clinton was asleep at the wheel as far as tracking terrorists (e.g., World Trade Center bombing by Bin Laden) was concerned. The US needs to figure out what it’s objective is in Afghan. Are we still hunting Bin Laden? Are we trying to nation build? The latter isn’t the role of the military; that’s a UN job and we all know how GREAT they are at getting jobs done. Whatever Mr. Obama’s strategic plan comes up with, there needs to be an objective. Gen. McChrystal is trying to put a big bandage on the wound but Mr. Obama needs to tell us where the bleeding is and what defines stopping it. His inaction will only lead to more bloodshed and not just in Afghan. Other despots around the world are getting the message that the US is slow, indecisive and not necessarily ready to commit. What is the “Obama Doctrine”??

  5. Carlman says:

    Maybe Obama simply put off the decision because he didn’t agree to it, it’s a mess and he didn’t know how to deal with it in a way that was consistent with his beliefs..
    I still don’t understand why the US has to stick its virtual prong into the butts of every other country and force democracy down their throats… all the while making money on their exports and imports through tarriffs.
    I don’t claim to know exactly what I’m talking about.. but I do know that it appears to me the US has more interest in exploiting other countries than fixing its own.

  6. JoeB says:

    Clausewitz’s book “On War” is a must read to understand the inexricable link between war and politics. Another good study for today is Bismark’s wars of German reunification and his keeping Motke’s military on a leash – until needed. Fighting limited wars is hard. The one positive thing we have in our favor today is the turnaround of the Pakistani’s attitude/efforts in fight ting the Taliban/AQ. They are taking away the last santuary for them. This is the primary difference between Afganistan and Vietnam – there’s no sanctuary. Now’s the time to push HARD both militarily and in population security and that take’s troops.