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.