Obama’s Cautious Approach To Afghanistan

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This morning, President Obama laid out his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition to the 17,000 troops already announced, Obama will deploy a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to train and advise Afghan security forces — making the total increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan roughly 21,000. These forces will be needed to improve the security situation, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as weather improves and the fighting season begins.

But an increase in troops doesn’t equal an overall shift in strategy. President Obama’s speech focused less on the military aspects of the United States’ effort in Afghanistan and more on a comprehensive civil-political effort to improve basic services, accountability, and overall governance in order to defeat the hard-core Taliban and al Qaeda fighters at the heart of the insurgency. This emphasis on the civil and political sectors is a welcome development, and comes on top of previous news that there will be a substantial civilian “surge” in Afghanistan. Moreover, by my interpretation of Obama’s speech, training of Afghan security forces will be better integrated into the overall state-building effort rather than being simply treated as a cure-all for both governance and military problems of the insurgency.

At the same time, Obama’s new strategy suggests that the administration is attempting to give Karzai or his successor a decent shot at improving Afghanistan’s governance and political problems without sucking the United States into an endless military commitment. The emphasis on the civil-political and governance issues suggest that the new team recognizes that it is on those issues that the United States and its allies will succeed or fail in Afghanistan, as I argued earlier.


The nature of the announced military reinforcements appears to support the political lines of operation. The earlier announced deployment of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and a Stryker brigade, combined with the new notice that a brigade of the 82nd Airborne is deploying on training duties, suggests that the military component of the new strategy is designed to provide a mobile shield to prevent the Taliban from mounting gains in quasi-conventional warfare in the south and east while giving the civil-political governance building parts of the new strategy breathing space to work. As reported in the Washington Post and LA Times before the president’s speech, the military objective is to “break the momentum of the Taliban in the next fighting season.”

In a way, the new strategy for Afghanistan reminds me conceptually of the one pursued by the United States in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. With the Vietnamese communists increasingly likely to topple the U.S.-supported generals in Saigon, the Johnson administration deployed large numbers of U.S. troops to engage communist forces in order to give Saigon time to get its act together. While successful — it did indeed buy time for the Saigon government, which ultimately could not in fact get its act together — it came at tremendous political, economic, material, and human cost.

However, in Afghanistan, the Obama administration appears to be taking a more cautious approach. Military deployments have been limited, and the U.S. policy focus appears more geared toward civil, political, and diplomatic efforts to get the Afghan government’s act together. This new strategy, in my estimation, is aimed at giving Karzai or his successor (pending August’s elections) an opportunity to get the Afghan government’s act together over the next several years without sucking U.S. military resources into an indefinite conflict a la Iraq or Vietnam. My own main worry is that we’re not adequately resourcing the military side (another brigade or two engaged in traditional counterinsurgency operations would be useful, in my opinion), and we’ll end up getting sucked in by bits and pieces if there’s no movement on Afghan politics and governance.

While I’d like to see more on the benchmarks and other metrics the administration will use to judge success, the strategy offered today is much better than I thought it would be and it’s got a decent chance at success if Afghan politics swing the right way — and that’s a pretty big “if.”

Of course, events in Pakistan will likely find some way mess up our strategy even if everything breaks our way — but that’s for another discussion.