After three months of careful deliberation, President Barack Obama announced his strategy for bringing the eight-year-long war in Afghanistan “to a successful conclusion.” Following the example of President George W. Bush’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq, Obama will send more troops to Afghanistan in the hope of stabilizing a deteriorating situation and establishing conditions for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Did the president make a convincing case for his new strategy? Given the impossibility of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, the president made a plausible, if not always consistent or convincing, case for his plan. The United States will get in deeper—if more selectively—in order to get out more quickly. That is the pledge Obama has now made to the American people, and he should be held to it.

The plan Obama put forward is at least plausible because it replicates the tactics used in the surge in Iraq, which has significantly reduced the level of violence there, thus allowing the United States to begin withdrawing its troops. Clearly Obama, once a strong opponent of the Iraq surge, has not let political rigidity keep him from embracing what he has come to understand is the best hope for relative success in Afghanistan, a war he has argued is necessary. What is not wholly convincing about Obama’s plan, however, is how it deals with the fact that Afghanistan—a desperately poor, largely rural, and preliterate country—is even less amenable to U.S. intervention than Iraq. Much will depend on how well the policy is executed and how strongly it is supported by NATO and other allies. Even more will depend on the cooperation and reliability of our often corrupt Afghan allies and the often reluctant Pakistanis. The president’s new strategy remains a big gamble, but it is difficult to argue that his decision is a self-serving one, especially given the opposition of many within his own party.   

Where Obama’s surge differs significantly from President Bush’s is in his determination to set a date, July 2011, to begin drawing down U.S. forces. Setting a deadline, Obama insists, is necessary to provide a “sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.” Although the president has in essence taken the advice of his generals, he has also made it clear that his commitment to the military’s counterinsurgency strategy is not open-ended. He wants results and he wants them quickly, and if the strategy fails he is willing to move in a different direction.

“I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests,” he told the nation in his West Point speech announcing his decision. Eschewing any triumphalism, the speech was remarkably somber in its tone and detailed in its arguments. “America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict—not just how we wage wars,” he cautioned. In an effort to summon a sense of national unity—a unity squandered by the decision to invade Iraq—the president even tried to answer honest objections to his decision. Many skeptics argue that the threat posed by Al Qaeda is no longer located in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and elsewhere, and thus the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban does not pose an imminent danger to the United States. Obama insisted, however, that a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan would embolden Al Qaeda and possibly destabilize Pakistan. It is in our vital national-security interest to “break the momentum” of that resurgence, something that cannot be done “from a distance.” Obama further insisted that his new strategy, with its emphasis on protecting population centers and a willingness to enlist local Afghan leaders, including some Taliban, will provide Afghanistan’s warring factions enough breathing room to broker a modus vivendi. For that to work, Pakistan must further intensify its efforts to root out the Taliban and what remains of Al Qaeda in the border regions.

There are few good options available to the president, but it is hard to believe that security conditions in Afghanistan can be dramatically improved in eighteen months. As the precarious stability of Iraq reminds us, insurgencies require political, not merely military, solutions. Does the United States have the diplomatic skills—and the diplomatic partners—to make that happen? After eight years of intermittent engagement, there is little evidence we do.

December 8, 2009

Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.

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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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