Foreign Policy: In The End, It's His Decision

Jun 22, 2011

Peter Feaver is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He was special advisor for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff at the White House from 2005-2007.

According to press reports, President Obama will soon clarify one of the lingering mysteries about his Afghanistan policy: what he meant by the July 2011 deadline he imposed on the "West Point surge" he announced in December 2009. If the advance leaks are any indication, Obama is under some pressure to replace one form of strategic confusion with another.

The arbitrary timeline generated considerable confusion after the West Point speech, with senior administration officials contradicting each other in background interviews and occasionally even on the record. Since the West Point surge was itself a product of a compromise — it split the difference between advisors who wanted to jettison Obama's campaign critique of Bush-era Afghan policy so as to shift back to a Rumsfeldian light-footprint posture and those advisors who advocated nearly the opposite approach of replicating Bush's Iraq surge in Afghanistan — the timeline had the awkward feel of a hybrid policy based on contradictory premises. One premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not taking U.S. support for granted. The other premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not hedging against U.S. abandonment. The West Point surge adopted the kinetics implied by the second premise, but undercut the policy with the rhetorical posture implied by the first premise.

The resulting internal strategic incoherence yielded a heavy dollop of public strategic confusion. Many observers recognized this was a mistake. Occasionally an insider would concede as much in private but publicly the administration stoutly defended the contradiction.

The contradiction has now played itself out and it is time for Obama to reveal his thinking. In an eerie parallel with the earlier debate, some advisors want him to rush the end of the Afghan surge and declare that all surge troops will be out within a year. Other advisors want him to announce a token withdrawal — sort of a down payment on further reductions — but keep most of the combat power in place through several more Afghan fighting seasons. The compromise position appears to be announcing an arbitrary deadline for the withdrawal of all surge troops — well, not that arbitrary since it will happen to coincide with the presidential elections — but delegating to the military the pace and timing of the withdrawals.

The Obama war pattern has been to split such differences and to adopt a policy that has more kinetic punch than the doves want but to frame (and in some cases, to undercut) that kinetic punch with dovish concessions. The betting money is that he will do the same thing this time. The result is a policy that neither fully satisfies nor fully enrages either side. There is enough hawkish punch to achieve some battlefield results (or, in the case of Iraq, to forestall a battlefield collapse) but not enough to maximize the chances for success.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical clock keeps ticking away. In the fall of 2009, Obama's advisors talked as if they were under considerable political pressure to hurry the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. Today, they actually do face that kind of serious political pressure. In the fall of 2009, it was evident that international patience for Afghanistan was wavering. Today, that patience is fully exhausted. In the fall of 2009, U.S.-Pakistan cooperation was wobbly. Today, it is on the ropes.

However, there are some positive developments that Obama can draw upon. First and foremost, Obama now faces virtually no prospect of an anti-war challenge during the presidential primary. Forestalling such a challenge was a core objective of his Afghanistan strategy and it appears he has succeeded. Second, because of the killing of bin Laden and the kinetic action of the McChrystal-Petraeus strategy, al Qaeda has been seriously degraded and the Taliban initiative has been reversed. It is too soon to declare mission accomplished, but the military prospects in Afghanistan look brighter today than they did when Obama took office.

What this all adds up to is a difficult choice. There are considerable risks associated with all three of the primary options under discussion. Hastening the exit risks undermining all of the battlefield progress. Slowing the exit risks collapsing political support at home. Splitting the difference risks doing just enough to fail on the battlefield and at home.

According to civil-military relations theory, there is only one person with the political and moral competence to adjudicate those risks: the president of the United States. If Obama's past practice is any guide, he is taking this decision very seriously and reserving the final say to himself, perhaps even considering different options at this late hour. That does not guarantee he will make the right decision, but it does increase the likelihood that it will be a decision that reflects his own national security vision.

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