Small Wars Journal

Enough Afghan Debate

Enough Afghan Debate - David S. Broder, Washington Post opinion.

The more President Obama examines our options in Afghanistan, the less he likes the choices he sees. But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose - and he has stretched the internal debate to the breaking point. It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision - whether or not it is right.

The cost of indecision is growing every day. Americans, our allies who have contributed their own troops to the struggle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the Afghans and their government are waiting impatiently, while the challenge is getting worse. When Obama became commander in chief, his course of action seemed clear. He was bent on early withdrawal from Iraq and an increase in resources and emphasis on winning in Afghanistan - the struggle he repeatedly called "a war of necessity." ...

More at The Washington Post.



Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:01am

I'm not a strategy guy, but I think the involvement of the coalition allies is borne less out of their national interests in the Afghanistan mission and more out of their national interests in sustaining a strong relationship with the US.

Paul Smyth (not verified)

Tue, 11/17/2009 - 8:55am

Here's a thought: if this is a coalition war (and it is), is it right for one government to decide on how the entire conflict should progress? Should what happens in Washington, London, Berlin or Canberra take precedent over what happens in Brussels? 'COMISAF's Initial Assessment' dated 30 Aug 09 was actually a US sponsored report by a US General to a US President. Ironically, the unity of command and effort Gen McChrystal correctly seeks is perhaps actually undermined when the first among equals acts independently. I doubt the delay is to allow consultation with coalition allies!

What goes here? (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 12:51am

A few things:

First, personally, I tend to sway toward the proposition that a bad decision is worse than no decision - but indecision is itself a decision, and can also in some circumstances kill. Given the awful strategic position in which we are in Afghanistan, we could use some good deliberation. Unfortunately, for all the weeks of 'debate' going on, noone's really debating much more than an adjustment to the margins of our current strategy. Even the 'Biden' option presumed more of the same. Some debate. For better or worse, our policy in Afghanistan is going to be less the result of strategic thinking than political and bureaucratic inertia, strapped within the usual strait jacket of 'reasonable' D.C. policy debate. (A jacket crafted, mind you, by the same yahoos who continuously drive us into the forest.)

Second, certainly, U.S. policies should not be torn down for petty reasons or cynically self-interested reasons, but they will always be politicized, as they are, of course political. Debates should be ongoing, free and vigorous, at all times. Asking that foreign policy be depoliticized is searching for the same chimera that asks or demands people to conduct military policy apolitically. It is neither achievable nor desirable.

Third, after eight years in Afghanistan, there is nothing unreasonable or impatient about the populace questioning whether our presence, particularly measured by the scores of thousands, is causing more harm than good to American financial, political, and military health. Some perspective is required. Two decades ago Americans would have been stunned at the extent of our military presence overseas, where they are, and the length at which they have been and are projected to be there. That today there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed overseas indefinitely, and this is simply taken as business as usual, is an outlier, particularly in a nation whose experience with a large standing army dates back only six or so decades.

James Harris (not verified)

Sun, 11/15/2009 - 7:51pm

In general, nobody can argue with the need to make careful and methodical decisions.

The problem here is whether or not there is confidence that this particular POTUS can do that. Add to that, lack of focus on anything that might be defined as success and more on how to leave without losing too much credibility.

More specifically, on the topic of "2LTs:" We spend a lot of time and effort training them to be decisive. I concede that sometimes they are decisive in the wrong ways. Furthermore, too many leaders of all kinds -- including some 2ndLts -- ignore sage advice in order to appear decisive and in-charge.

However, there are many historical examples of leaders (at all levels) who are not decisive because of the uncertainties. They insist on being sure about everything, to the point of choosing disaster by default. That is why many better leaders (including, I believe LtGen. G.A. Patton) have opined that a bad decision vigorously executed is better than the perfect decision made too late.

Politicians, regardless of party, seem to be "trained" in a totally opposite leadership philosophy -- do nothing for as long as possible, and maybe the problem will just go away, or become someone else's.

The clock is ticking on how long our people will put up with Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our impatient people always want the boys home by Christmas, with no casualties. In that environment, assuming we'd like something like success, we can ill afford leadership who shows the worst of everything discussed above.

We see a lack of decisiveness (probably because this "piss ant war" (LBJ saying) might detract from Health Care and Global Warming programs; combined with a propensity to ignore the advice of the commander on the ground.

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Sun, 11/15/2009 - 4:48pm

I also routinely pray for our President and that he (and our other leaders) make(s) the right decisions - only time will tell. Regardless of where I come down on the issues, I pray we get them right.

I don't think we can avoid the politicization of our FP, its the nature of politics. I've read allot of commentary on this specific issue that almost suggests that when the President makes a statement, acts (or does not act) that somehow he is able to, or should be able to take his domestic policy hat off, and put his CDR in Chief hat on - and make an totally unbiased decision based on that specific issue. I don't believe a president can or should do that - unless the issue is of such non-import that it passes for casual.

As domestic policy and foreign policy are so intertwined (e.g. - is homeland security policy a domestic issue or a FP issue?)all politicians will politicize any issue based on where they see advantage, or believe to be a better choice. As they are politicians, is just what they do - I'm not sure its all bad either. For those who campaign for office - I think that would be everyone but George Washington (and maybe Tom Clancy's fictional Jack Ryan) there must be some attraction to the exercise of social authority else why would anyone desire 2 + years of Gordian Knots.

As for the journalists, they will make a story no matter if there is one or not - its what they do - and I'm not sure that is all bad either.

As for us, the takeaway is to think and learn. This will come along again, different partners perhaps, different chorus maybe, same tune though.

Best, Rob

While, too, am getting tired of waiting for a decision from the NCA, Schmedlap makes a good point when he says..."A lot of journalists are upset at the length of time that the President is taking. If it upsets journalists, then it's probably got some merit."


This is not to take away from your thoughtful, insightful comment. I agree with much of what you wrote.

However, in the broader context, I'm just tired of the politicalization of our foreign policy. I wasn't around much during the Bush Administration, but I know that he was demonized by many.

Mr. Broder, like other pundits, offers no solutions. He is just complaining. He sounds like a negative platoon sergeant that perpetually whines and criticizes without offering a way ahead. It is not helpful.

President Obama is our president. The weight of the world is on his shoulders. When he is ready, he'll act. At this point, we can offer suggestions and recommendations, but most importantly, we should offer our prayers and trust that he gets this right.



Sun, 11/15/2009 - 1:11pm

A lot of journalists are upset at the length of time that the President is taking. If it upsets journalists, then it's probably got some merit.

I see no evidence that the leaks are unintentional. In fact, they seem to be helping to shape public support and sending specific messages to narrow target audiences, such as Karzai and Pakistan's gov't.

I hope that this is not the intent, but the leaks also help as consensus builders. Take, for example, the CNAS folks who wanted a rubber stamp of McChrystal's plan (which they helped formulate). They may not get it. But rather than the administration just declaring some other plan, leaks have informed us that the plan has been rejected, but also that deliberations continue. So now think tanks whose ideas were scrapped are trying to have some modicum of input so that they can claim that they were part of the final plan. These leaks provide a way for every concerned organization and politician to weigh in and comment on the decision making process. If the plan goes south, there will be fewer groups of individuals shouting "we told you so; you should have listened to us."

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Sun, 11/15/2009 - 12:39pm


I guess it all depends on what is the source of the President's deliberations. Is it because no COA has emerged which provides a logical ends/ways/means relationship with an acceptable amount of risk? Or is because (which is what I think Mr. Broder is inferring) every option that has thus far emerged (or is likely to emerge) is politically unacceptable because it has no 100% guarantee of success and any amount of risk is unacceptable - be it go big, or pull out?

I do agree that the political leadership should be certain they have chosen the best COA - go big, pull out, status quo / CT, CT/Pop COIN, CT/FID, development or whatever - but, how does not making and announcing that choice affect operations (ours, the enemies, allies, populations, other participants)? How does it affect the current and future political decisions of others?

Not making a choice of some sort, or deliberating does equate to indecision - X has not decided yet... While I have counseled junior leaders on hasty decisions, and advised more senior leaders on when they needed to make a decision. When there is a significant outcome associated with a decision, one that may affect their operations, or get them killed, I've always counseled/advised them there will never be a set of conditions which guarantees the outcome, just that some conditions are better than others for achieving your purpose - knowing when the conditions are better than not is more art than science I think. If that decision is likely to create new conditions on other fronts, then its that much harder to commit.

I think it may be worth considering that the President is factoring in elements in a decision on Afghanistan that have no direct bearing on the outcome in Afghanistan itself. These could range from other national security issues, to pursuit of domestic objectives. I think given the political commitments he has made, and perhaps some of the opposition pursuit of those objectives has rallied, he may see a condition he must retain as being loyalty of his own political base to achieve those objectives - at least a portion of whom appear to be opposed to the use of military force in almost any circumstance.

I'm just not sure the President is, or is able to strictly follow an analytic decision making process like MDMP. MDMP lends itself to having "a" mission - with a primary purpose. I don't think a president has that luxury. I think the uncertainty associated with war, particularly one where success, or tolerable outcome, etc. is contingent upon another government's willingness to do what is required would require accepting risk, and potentially jeopardizing other political objectives - some of which may actually mean more to an elected political leader than others. A decision on Afghanistan sits in the context of that broader political agenda, and not as a sole point. That is not an indictment, its just the nature of politics I think.

It could be the NSC has mapped out where they think the decision points (DPs) on the broader political map are - and associated them with all the other decisions that must be made, and we're just not there yet. Two things bother me about that though: we often put down DPs, but miss them because the conditions/indicators we anticipated as signaling a DP are not the ones we actually encounter and the choice the decision associated with the DP is no longer a valid choice; the second is that I've not seen or heard any indications that such DPs exist -even the Afghanistan election results and their consequences seem to have been unanticipated given the influence on our choices.

I'm all for patience in making the right decision(s), but knowing how long one can wait, and what indicators signal some decision must be made is an important question in itself. I don't believe there is a perfect COA, just that some may be better than others, and that the others will not generally stand still while you decide. This may be good or bad if it provides you some new advantage, but if they are taking actions which put you at a further disadvantage the value in waiting may be increasingly limited.

Best Rob

Jeremy Kotkin (not verified)

Sun, 11/15/2009 - 12:23pm

well put Mike, very well put.

I take issue with Mr. Broder's commentary. Oh if he was a 2LT.

"Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision - whether or not it is right."

This mentality is one of the first things that we have to force new LT's to unlearn. When one gets lost in the woods, it is reckless to follow that inner voice that screams "make a decision!!!" and continue walking around in circles.

Instead, one learns to take a knee, pull out your map and compass, figure out where you are, and plot a new direction.

President Obama is doing just that. Moreover, he's following basic military decision making- define the commanders intent, plan a course of action, and determine an ENDSTATE.

As someone who will be directly effected by the President's decision, I have no issues that he's taking his time before he sends Major Few back on his fifth deployment.

But, alas, Mr. Broder is not a 2LT. He just provides his opinion.