Small Wars Journal

Obama tries to escape from Afghanistan, but won't

The most controversial feature of President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan is his decision to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the country in July 2011. This feature (no doubt aligned with his re-election plans -- why else withdraw troops at the start of the Afghan summer fighting season?) is a fatal flaw and makes it very likely that little will go right for his Afghan strategy. Indeed, it negates the point of hastily adding over 30,000 U.S. and European soldiers in 2010.

Over the past three months President Obama and his team have analyzed the Afghanistan problem from first principles. Yet in spite of this effort, their solution is not likely to make the problem go away. Regrettably, the next few years are likely to reveal that America still lacks a winning strategy for modern irregular conflict.

The two speeches

President Obama wishes he could have given two speeches on Afghanistan.

The first would have been heard only by the Taliban, Pakistan's governing elite, and by Afghanistan's population wondering which side of the fence to jump to. Obama's message to this group would have been, "I am escalating this war in order to suppress the Taliban, wipe out al Qaeda, and create space for Afghanistan to take over the war."

The second speech would have been heard only by the American electorate, and especially those who most passionately supported his campaign in 2008. His message to this group would have been, "I will get America out of the Afghan war, starting in July 2011."

Alas, Obama could give only one speech to be heard by all. Tonight's speech attempted to transmit the two messages. Unfortunately, it is very likely that Obama's signals got crossed - the Taliban, Pakistan's governing elite, and Afghanistan's population heard the second message, that America is getting out, while the President's supporters angrily heard the first. The result is a muddled strategy that will reinforce bad behavior in the region, will be unconvincing at home, and will not help the morale of soldiers in the field.

Bad behavior rewarded

In order to succeed in Afghanistan, the United States needs actors in the region to change their behavior. Under Obama's plan they have no reason to do so. Now that they know the start date of America's withdrawal, the Taliban can continue to ambush U.S. soldiers and Marines, avoid major contact, and conserve their forces for a post-NATO Afghanistan. The U.S. needs Afghanistan's elites to be a real government and not feudal lords preparing their own fiefdoms. Instead, President Hamid Karzai and his allies will divert what assets they can and look for a new major-power patron. Fearing that India might be that patron, Pakistan's intelligence service will continue to support the Afghan Taliban as its proxy army. Obama's attempt to send two messages ensures that Afghanistan will get messier in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, Democrats old enough to remember the 1960s will remember that the rebellion against the Vietnam War began as a civil war within the Democratic Party. That episode seems likely to repeat.

The roots of Lyndon Johnson's failure in Vietnam extended back to mistakes made in the Eisenhower administration. Similarly, Obama's escalation in Afghanistan ratifies a murky decision made sometime in the middle of the Bush administration to construct a strong and competent central government for Afghanistan, something alien to its culture and history. The nation-state model is the reflexive Western response to modern conflict. When applied to Afghanistan, the nation-state model supplied the West with a weak partner, and the Taliban with a powerful recruiting tool and a security guarantee for its sanctuaries in Pakistan.

America's war in Afghanistan

Regrettably, this is not likely to be Obama's last speech or even his last policy for Afghanistan. Obama is hoping to leave the Afghanistan problem behind him as he prepares for a second term. But the problem will still be there, perhaps worse than ever. And the American electorate will be left wondering what the purpose was for escalating the war in 2010.

Afghanistan is not "Obama's War," it is America's war, and always has been. What America still needs is a winning strategy for this war and for future irregular conflicts. We all have a responsibility for solving that problem.


I read the speech and I concur with oldpapajoe's sentiments. If I was Mullah Omar, OBL or the PAK Army/ISI, right now I'd be thinking "I got this guy!"

As an aside, comments about strengthening Pakistan against the Takfiris always puzzle me. In important ways, the PAK Army/ISI are the takfiris. The Taliban and AQ wouldn't be where they are, maybe not even exist, if they weren't supported by the PA/ISI (and Saudi money).

Veritas (not verified)

Wed, 12/02/2009 - 6:52pm

Mr. Haddick,

What do you propose is a "winning" strategy for Afghanistan?
COINdinistas told the President that a surge was needed for us to have any shot of establishing a legitimate government and security force. So the President obliged and is sending more troops. As earlier posters have said he threw the left-wing of the Democratic party a bone and set a tentative time frame.

Veritas thinks that the President's speech was okay, not great but okay. To be fair to the President this is a delicate issue politically and he had to balance hawks who want an open-ended full scale commitment (because seriously does anyone think a clean transparent and fair Afghan government is going to emerge and magically make the Taliban irrelevant?) and doves who want a withdraw as soon as logistically possible.


Wed, 12/02/2009 - 6:48pm

Mr. Haddick,

Your comments and thoughts are interesting and well laid out. I would, however, offer the observation that the President's strategy neccesarily considers far more of America's Geopolitical concerns than simply Afghanistan, or the struggle against Al Qaeda. As SWJ's focus is on, well...Small Wars it may be easy to lose sight of America's larger security requirements and the competing budgets requirements we face as a nation. As many of us have fought in Afghanistan and/or Iraq we naturally desire some measure of victory in our time, something that justifies the manner sacrifices which have been made. However the fact remains that the ground combat power of the United States has been decisively (and one may argue, narrowly) commited to the middle east for the last 6 years or more. In this time other more serious competitor's on the world stage (Russia, for example) have enjoyed considerable room to maneuver (Georgian War) that they might otherwise have not felt bold enough to attempt. The American military has rarely been a land power, regardless of the projectability and hitting power of those forces. We have been, and will remain, a Naval Power by necessity, as security of the worlds shipping lanes guarantees our economic prosperity and physical security in North America. The bottomline thought I wish to contribute is this; Long term, the final NATO encirclement and isolation of Russia is decisive to the long term security of the United States, a task which we have only been able to limply pursue since 2003. We took a bold risk to stave off the threat of an Al Qaeda led fundamentalist revolution in the middle east which would have threatened the oil security of the western nations, we did this by turning the attention of the Sunni and Shia world away from us (by pulling Saddam's finger from the Shia dike, and replacing it with our own), and back towards each other for the forseeable future. This will keep them weak, and vulnerable to our influence should they challenge our energy security. We are betting the Russias will not be able to break out of our NATO encirclement and loosen our foothold on the carpathian and caucus mountains through NATO expansion. If we are successful, then Russia will not be able to stop us from redirecting energy supplies from Central Asia to Europe along a route which Russia does not control (which currently doesn't exist today in any meaningful capacity). If successful, then Germany (the historic dominant power of Europe when united) would be able to oppose any Russian resurgence in Europe, free from worries of energy blackmail. If these events can coincide with the projected demographic crisis Russia faces in the coming decades of an ever shrinking working age population than the possibility of rolling Russia back to it's Muscovite beginning becomes very real. Whether my singular view of U.S. Grand Strategy is right or wrong is of little consequence, what matters is that America's Stategy in Small Wars has rarely been to "win" or crush our enemies. These conflicts are often too far from home, and from our major national interest to warrant the marshalling of the resources required. What matters is that we conducted a successful spoiling attack at the strategic level to nip a future threat in the bud. The fight in Afghanistan is not about who rules Afghanistan, or if they let Al Qaeda stay there, it is about the continued security of a nuclear armed Pakistan who resisted our efforts in Afghanistan in an attempt to avoid a US-India sandwich & maintain their strategic depth against Indian invasion, but now who will ultimately be forced to help us for fear of India filling the vacuum if we left Afghanistan before GiRoA was able to do so. Small Wars are still fought within the frame of the Big Picture and must be viewed as so.


Sanmon (not verified)

Wed, 12/02/2009 - 4:44pm

The Afghans have a vote also. Just how many do you think will still be part of the ANA in July 2011. Just how many commanders in the ANA will still be in country in July 2011. The Afghans heard one thing in this speech, Americans are gone July 2011. This may not be the message intended from our CinC it is the message the Afghans got.

Now is the time the Afghans will rape and pillage anything and everything that is not nailed down by coalition forces. The Afghans have one thing in mind, survival! They will stop pointing out IED. They will stop all intel. They will assist the new leaders(taliban) lead coalition forces into ambush. They will do what ever they need to do to survive. How many supplies do you really think will make it from Pakistan to the FOB's? We just implemented a plan of KAOS. No matter how great our commanders are (and they are great) they will not be able to control an Afghan population that will do whatever they need to do to survive. Afghans know how to survive they have 1000's of years of practice and history of surviving.

There will be NO civilian surge to rebuild anything unless they have a plane on standby with engines running ready to take off that can have them wheels up in less than 10 min. This is KAOS strategy no matter what was intended.

Dave (not verified)

Wed, 12/02/2009 - 4:14pm

One of the other things that is often forgotten in this part of the world is this; he who controls the poppy trade as well as the ancient Silk Road (which is still very much alive) controls not only Afghanistan but influences the tribal areas of Pakistan, NE Iran, and even the confluence of China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Since no outside power (Alexander, Genghis Khan, the Moguls, the Russians, or the British) has ever been able to control this vital economic link, so goes the history of the region. If we decided to step in and seize the poppy fields as well as regulate the trade, this whole issue starts to go away. Of course, we could never do that due to our culture and laws. Do not forget how we once allegedly funded most of the military forces and operations in those peripheral nations that lay along the edge of the old Vietnam theater of operations. Moreover, remember the outcry when it was found out that the CIA allegedly was controlling the poppy trade in order to pay for that part of the war?


Obama had to choose between an open ended or a time limited commitment. A time limited commitment pushes the Afghans, Karzai in particular, to change. It may encourage the Taliban to just wait. An open ended commitment meant no impetus for the Afghans to change, Karzai keeps enriching family and friends. It implies the Taliban must fight longer.

I see no evidence that the Taliban, after eight years, are weakening in resolve. They seem willing to go on for another 20 years. hell, they live there after all. On balance, I think setting some timelines is good. They can be adjusted if progress is being made. If not, we need to acknowledge that we cannot spend $100 billion a year there forever.


Ron Holt (not verified)

Wed, 12/02/2009 - 1:57pm

I would disagree with Elton. Dealing with the ideology of Jihad and the creation of Islamic Emirates is in our vital interest. We have many historical examples of a small, ideologicallly-driven, ruthless groups taking over nation states. Our long-term strategic interest in AFPAK is: (1)to stop a victory by the Jihadist/Wahhabist/Salafists.
These people feed on Islamist ideology and preceived victories against western civilization and "non-Jihadist" muslims; and(2)
to strengthen Afghanistan and Pakistan to the point they can prevail against the Jihadists.
Only then can we reasonaably return to a perpheral raid-based interdiction strategy.
The stakes are incredibly high: if the Jihadists can claim to have defeated both the Soviet Union and the USA, the West is in serious trouble.

Interesting to see the varied opinions and how all comments have focused on the speech and the political implications.
So here's my opinion. The reality of the situation is we have NO VITAL interest in Afghanistan. The only reason we are there is because of 9/11 and the Taliban refusal to handover the criminals who plotted the terrorist act. There is NOTHING about Afghanistan except those criminals that the U.S. is concerned with. The fight between the Taliban and the Afghan gov't will happen without our presence. Our presence will only delay the inevitable. The President's objectives recognizes this fact and takes the hard stand required to redirect our efforts. These objectives will eventually get the U.S. back on track with resourcing and protecting our National interests and not the interest of some potential failed state (that's a separate discussion).
Now, the accomplishment of those objectives depend on how well each government agency, not just DOD, extracts and implements their specified and implied tasks. The timeline is a troop withdrawal requirement but does not restrict the use of other U.S. powers such as economic and diplomatic to achieve our goals. I have no comments on political intent.


Wed, 12/02/2009 - 10:48am

I agree on that point, in the short term. In the long term, I suspect that they will see that our withdrawal is not imminent and adjust accordingly.

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Wed, 12/02/2009 - 10:16am

BHO had to give the speech of his life last night (political life) but failed totally, sadly so. As the Commander in Chief he had to put on his "game face". The face he wants our enemies and our allies to see. His speech was not, should not have been, an academic speech to a bunch of policy wonks, or to the left wing of his party. No, as the CINC he needed to demonstrate moral strength and leadership to our enemies and allies and those watching the most powerful man in the world commit his country to a war. In this he failed utterly. For those of us who study strategy and war, we can appreciate his situation, and all the subtle issues involved. But, he was not delivering a speech to war college students, or to his NSC, or the like. For a man who is as gifted a speaker as BHO, this speech is a very pathetic effort. A friend of mine whose son is a Cadet at USMA told me this morning that the cadets were surprised by the POTUS tone. The cadets sensed that BHO wasn't really "into the war".

It seems to me that anything can be twisted into a recruiting tool with the right amount of leverage. The US is sending more troops - "the infidel is invading, join our glorious fight" would be a valid possibility. The US is planning to leave - "the US is cutting and running, our cause is obviously just and righteous" would be equally valid. Obviously, the fact that this speech contains elements of both could be a problem. On the other hand, Schmedlap is right that the speech was political, rather than a concrete statement of what will happen rain or shine.

My interpretation is that the administration hopes to gain some recognizable military victories against the Taliban, and limit their post-withdrawal capabilities, and then leave without really dealing with the political weaknesses of Afg. My cynical side says that "we" don't really care about the stability of the state after we leave, so long as it just doesn't go back to the Taliban or a regime too likely to support Al-Qaeda affiliates. That will involve a good amount of wishful thinking. It's also the same sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.


I haven't read the speech yet so factor that in, but I think Robert's most important point is how the talk will be heard by the Taliban and Pak Army/ISI-they won't be discouraged; and how the Afghans will hear it-their confidence in our sticking it out probably hasn't increased.


Wed, 12/02/2009 - 5:01am

It will not be hard to start "withdrawing" in summer 2011--you just "withdraw" (i.e. do not replace) the "surged" elements, and leave the 68K here. Then he can have his cake (I supported the general in the field's request) and eat it, too (I have started withdrawing troops from AFG as I promised). Of course, the cake phenomena is not an unusual desire for either little children or politicians.


Wed, 12/02/2009 - 2:23am

Schmelap, great insight into Obama's entire speech. I think you hit the nail on the head. That's why I enjoy reading SMJ.


Tue, 12/01/2009 - 11:46pm


It's not an implementation of policy. It's a speech.

<em>"The most controversial feature of President Obamas strategy for Afghanistan is his decision to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the country in July 2011."</em>

That is not a binding decision. It is an empty promise that seeks to quiet rumblings among the anti-war wing of his political base. Remember the Executive Order to <a href=>close down Gitmo</a> by January? That's next month. It's not going to happen. Likewise, we will not begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. It is an overly optimistic goal that will not be met. When it is not met, just as with Gitmo, the administration can point back to the original intent and to a good faith effort and say, "let's be clear: we wanted to and we tried." In the meantime, just as with Gitmo, it shuts certain people up. He threw them a bone.

If the promise of a July 2011 withdrawal were sincere, then I would share the concerns that you outlined. But I see no reason assume that it is sincere. This was a political speech by the holder of a political office addressing a politically polarizing issue. The promise doesn't square with reality - just as the Gitmo promise didn't square.

I feel reassured because I have no expectation that this promise will be kept.


Thu, 12/03/2009 - 4:00pm

carl, are correct about jihadists and jihadist supervisors in Pakistan thinking "we have been proven right". But they have always been saying that. They will get some propaganda mileage out of this, but propaganda matters less than facts on the ground and those may be changing in other ways.
2. The pak army/ISI "brain trust" were indeed the same as the takfiris, but they were never ALL of the high command. And it wasnt just that the army was using the takfiris, the takfiris were also using an army whose majority does not really agree with their full program.
I think these hardcore elements were always in a minority, but successfully used the moronic majority by massaging their India obsession in appropriate ways. The question is if that nexus is being broken or is it fully intact or has even grown? It seems that most American analysts think it is weakened, even if its not been broken. Do you think there has been no change?


I am not qualified to judge if the nexus of which you speak has been broken or weakened. I do think that the "college seminar" type speech Mr. Obama gave won't do anything at all to weaken that nexus whereas something a little more "Churchillian" could have.

Richard Armitage gave an interview where he said the ISI didn't bother us in Afghanistan for a long time because, basically, the 2001 invasion scared them. One of the things Bedford Forrest said is you have to "keep up the scare". We didn't keep up the scare. If we are to put the scare back into them things like presidential speeches are important.

Things must be very confusing for the various conspirators over there now. I wonder if parts of the PA/ISI are at war with other parts or if they have just lost control of their proteges.

Maybe one of the core problems in this whole thing is the place of the Pakistani Army in Pakistani society. Without the Indian bogeybear would it have such a prominent place? Perhaps this is about ricebowls.