Small Wars Journal

No wonder the Afghan review is taking so long

While on his way today to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed to reporters (in the course of blasting anonymous leakers) a few snippets from the Obama administration's review of Afghan policy. According to the AFPS article, Gates said "Obama appears to be leaning toward [a policy option] that combines parts of various alternatives presented so far."

Gates went on to say:

The question, [Gates] said, comes down to "How do we signal resolve, and at the same time, signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?"

If President Obama and his team are waiting until they come up with an answer to that dilemma, it is no longer a mystery why the review is taking so long. Sorry, you can't commit to both the long road and the exit ramp at the same time -- you have to pick one or the other.

The very fact that the administration is still trying to figure out an elegant solution to this insoluble dilemma sends a strong signal, a signal that explains and motivates the behavior of various actors in ways unpleasant to the administration. Examples include:

1. Pakistan hedging its bets by continuing to protect the Afghan Taliban,

2. Providing the Afghan Taliban with an excellent recruiting and motivational tool, and guidance on how to adjust the tempo of their operations,

3. President Hamid Karzai hedging his bets by cutting side deals with Afghanistan's power players,

4. Local Afghans accepting U.S. assistance but also hedging by not resisting the Taliban (as reported by Bing West in his trip report),

5. U.S. conventional combat units doing their own form of hedging by getting passive and increasingly just going through the motions (also reported by West),

6. Anonymous leakers inside the administration attempting to preemptively cripple policy options they don't like.

When Gates said, "signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended," I assume the Afghans he had in mind were Karzai, other top officials in the Afghan government, and officers in the army and police. He apparently wants to motivate those particular Afghans to make a better effort defending their country.

I doubt he was referring to the Taliban and the broad civilian population. They too are Afghans and have very likely received the message that "this is not open-ended."



Don't encourage us too much. Schmedlap's a former infantry officer and a burgeoning lawyer, foreign officer officer, or company commander with wicked smarts. I'm a cav guy that's spent too much time with the snake eaters. Humble is not often in our vocabulary.

If you don't hear from me, then you should consider that I concur w you. I look forward to your FP articles on Fridays.

I forgot to mention one difference that I had with your article last week on Strykers. Strykers are big, and they make a big boom. We cannot forget the basics of human nature for the dramatic. Sometimes, the best pyschop is a video of a big vehicle being blown up- that may explain why the Taliban will bypass dismounted soldiers and HMMWVs to videotape a Stryker explosion.


Robert Haddick (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2009 - 5:38pm

Dear Schmedlap and MikeF:

Thanks for your insightful comments. I always learn a lot from you guys.

MikeF, just to be clear, I am not a critic of the administration for alleged dithering. Other aspects possibly, but not that one.

As for Karzai, I agree that in extremis, he could and likely would flee. Let us then discuss the situation of Afghan President X. Given the nature of Afghan society and its government, Mr. X may not have the ability to implement the reforms the U.S. might want him to implement.

Or, after weighing the costs and benefits, it may be the case that Mr. X and his allies would be better off without the McChrystal plan for Afghanistan when compared to the costs and risks of implementing the reforms President Obama, Eikenberry and others demand.

No doubt Karzai and his friends are formulating alternate strategies and fallback options for a new patron, India and China being possibilities. As Sri Lanka showed, having China as a sponsor means not having to pay much attention to FM 3-24.


Here's two historical narratives to consider.

1. JFK's dithering w/ the Cuban Missile Crisis saved us from nuclear holocaust with the Russians.

2. Carter's dithering during the embassy crisis cost us our relationship with Iran.

History is a painful reminder that there are no easy answers. Sometimes it works; sometimes not so much.



Fri, 11/13/2009 - 2:57pm


<em>"All Afghans have to arrange their affairs under the assumption that the U.S. is leaving - Karzai included."</em>

I think that's a comparison without any significance. If the US withdraws, then Karzai is not going to be at the mercy of the Taliban. He's going to hop a flight to a western country and earn a living giving speeches.

<em>"Can you see how the message 'we are not carrying on unconditionally' gives an incentive for Karzai to not 'clean up his act"?'"</em>

Maybe I'm a little slower than the other commenters, but I don't see it. "We are not carrying on unconditionally" suggests that we will carry on if certain conditions are met. I think we're sending a clear message that those conditions include restraining the rampant corruption.


"Can you see how the message "we are not carrying on unconditionally" gives an incentive for Karzai to not "clean up his act"?"

Yes, I can see that, and you maybe right; however here's another intrepretation:

We are not carrying on unconditionally. If you don't clean up your act, the money and the troops disappear, and you can defend yourself against the Taliban.

To me, that's good persuasive or coersive politics. Unfortunately, neither one of us is privy to the private conversations

Robert Haddick (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2009 - 2:23pm

Dear Schmedlap and MikeF:

Can you see how the message "we are not carrying on unconditionally" gives an incentive for Karzai to not "clean up his act"?

All Afghans have to arrange their affairs under the assumption that the U.S. is leaving - Karzai included. Given Gates's message, there is little upside and much downside for most everyone in the region to cooperate with the U.S. program, whatever it might be.

Dang, I was about to concur with anonymous. Now, I concur with Schmedlap.

In addition to Karzai, the Administration has been taking direct action to effect and shape the geopolitical situation by engaging Pakistan, India, and Europe.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2009 - 12:42pm

<em>"6. Anonymous leakers inside the administration attempting to preemptively cripple policy options they dont like."</em>

I think it is the exact opposite: many of these leaks are being made to put forth the appearance that the administration's "dithering" is really an ongoing debate that is being rigorously carried on. In reality, I suspect it is somewhere between the two - a few COAs have been narrowed down, but the situation on the ground needs to further develop until one is selected. Greyhawk nailed it, imo, in regard to step 1 being Karzai and step 2 needing to wait for step 1.

Eikenberry's cable, recently leaked, seems to have a target audience of one man: Hamid Karzai. The message: clean up your act because we are not carrying on unconditionally.

Count me among those who are not concerned about the delay.


It is not unreasonable at all to point this out. You are spot on.

SFC S (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2009 - 10:29am

Is it unreasonable to point out that it's difficult to develop a strategy when you're strategic goals are poorly defined and understood? Other than denying the Taliban/Al Qaeda a safe-haven, what is our national interest in Afghanistan? I can dream up a scenario or two, but that doesn't necessarily jibe with reality or the thinking in DC.

I could understand the national goals in Iraq: having a sectarian, non-hostile regime in Iraq serves as a check on Iran, improves security in the Gulf and provides us with a potential regional ally if (when?) the House of Saud falls.

But Afghanistan? If it wasn't for the debacle the Soviets suffered there, the vast majority of Americans would have never heard about the place.

I don't think our caution in Afghanistan is a sign of our waning power; but it seems to me to be an indicator of our desire to use that power to specifically contribute to what we hope to achieve.


Fri, 11/13/2009 - 4:34am

Re: NATO allies, commitment and public support.

In some countries, such as Denmark (member) and Finland (non-member) a majority support continued participation in ISAF.

Questions about U.S. policy certainly have a bearing on decisions about providing (or not) additional resources. However, domestic political support and risk balancing certainly plays a role: War in Afghanistan is not an existential question, so you have to decide how much of a limited resource pool (both politically and militarily) you want to commit - similar to the U.S., albeit on a microscopic scale


Fri, 11/13/2009 - 12:28am

While Mr. Haddick is not necessarily wrong, nor (as has been repeated ad nauseam) are lessons from Iraq necessarily applicable to Afghanistan, but it's worthwhile to bear in mind that in 2006, we heard all this in regards to Iraq, that not setting the long-term commitment in stone would lead to vacillation amongst Iraqis and eventually disaster.

However, as many have pointed out, the realization amongst Sunnis after the 2006 midterm elections that the United States was not going to be in Iraq forever, and a precipitous withdrawal would leave the Sunni tribes caught between a sectarian Shi'ite government and the not-so-welcoming arms of their al-Qa'ida brethren actually helped the Sunnis decide to join forces (with the not-so-minor added incentive of money and weapons, of course) with the United States.

So while indecision and just plain old trying to do too much are certainly not good things, I think Mr. Haddick is ever-so-slightly presumptuous to claim foreknowledge of the exact consequences of any US "hedging."


Greyhawk (not verified)

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 11:53pm

As for any plan for Afghanistan, I'm convinced our looks something like this - and has since at least January:

1. Solve Karzai problem.

Everything else reported on Afghanistan is speculation on what step two might be. There is no dithering, until step one is accomplished (or abandoned) there will be no step two.

Greyhawk (not verified)

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 11:37pm

Another point could be added re: NATO allies and their commitment. I'm not aware of any where participation is popular domestically in the first place.

But the duality is nothing new. The White Paper says "The United States must overcome the 'trust deficit' it faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many believe that we are not a reliable long-term partner."

A week before it was released the president <a href="">assured a domestic audience</a> that<blockquote>"Theres got to be an exit strategy," Mr. Obama said in a wide-ranging interview shown Sunday on "60 Minutes" on CBS. "Theres got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."</blockquote>

Both are true. One was probably better left unsaid (other than into the ear of one man in Kabul) in the interest of the other. The problem was years of politically expedient attacks on a predecessor who had done just that left an opening for charges of hypocrisy had that point not been made publicly.


Thu, 11/12/2009 - 10:41pm

My theory of the day is that this is what decline looks like. After all, if the US is no longer the most productive, most creative and most powerful country in the world, somehow it has to translate into contraction of empire (or whatever polite word you prefer)..... whatever twists and turns happen, the end result has to be a position more in line with actual power (all round power, not just conventional military prowess, though that too will find its level eventually). What do you think?

Zakariah Johnson (not verified)

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 9:59pm

Well said.


Thu, 11/12/2009 - 9:54pm

Now I feel like a prophet.
Among those who will hedge their bets are analysts and strategists in the US, who (unlike the President and his defence secretary) can see where this is going to end and will position themselves accordingly.
China and Iran and Russia have probably factored this in already> GHQ in Pakistan already believed this was coming. The people who have been made fools are those afghans who decided to back the US presence without hedging their bets with drug smugglers and taliban, and the Indians, who seem to have fallen for the idea that the US will not only give them Afghanistan, it will also solve their Pakistan headache for them....well, rethinkng time all around... I dont mean that the jihadists will smoothly take over. I just mean the mess will be huge and everyone will blame the US while they try to look for ways to deal with it.

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 8:11pm


A good post - in 6 bullets you cover risks in time, space and will; the relationship between domestic and foreign policy, and also why someone may decide to fight and resist, or do something else.

Someone pointed out to me once that while there are some things that can be structured as a problem with a mostly identifiable solution. There are also somethings which are conditions that have no mostly identifiable solution(s).

The latter may require a different kind of commitment than the former. It may incur taking one step backwards in order to take two steps forward. If you only have forward gears in your transmission, or if you don't know (or like) what is behind you, then changing conditions in order to identify the problems may not be a feasible or desirable option.

Unfortunately, I think most of the things we are likely to face as we pursue our policies are conditions, and not problems. They have no "fix" per se, but must be managed as long as we have an interest in how the conditions may evolve.

Best, Rob