The Hurry-Up Offense

by Steven Metz | October 23, 2009

In an October 20 New York Times story, Elisabeth Bumiller reported that "frustration and anxiety are on the rise within the military" because President Obama has taken an extended period of time to decide whether to increase the American military presence in Afghanistan. Whether this is accurate or not remains unclear--for obvious reasons a number of the sources cited in the story were former military officers rather than serving ones. But even if it is true, it is due more to the appearance of indecision than to any tangible damage caused by the protracted decision process.

One argument made by those advocating a quick presidential decision and the speedy deployment of more troops is that delay emboldens the Taliban and inspires increased attacks on American troops already in Afghanistan. This defies credibility. Islamic radicals have learned by now that the "Blackhawk down" notion that a few casualties will lead to American withdrawal is simply wrong. Even while he deliberates, President Obama has made clear that precipitous disengagement from Afghanistan is not in the cards. If anything, the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies understand one of the oldest rules of insurgency: Attacks which provoke a government overreaction can bring psychological victories--the only kind that matter in insurgency. An open-ended U.S. troop "surge" in Afghanistan would help the extremists find new recruits motivated by the idea that the United States has invaded and occupied Islamic lands. Besides, military campaigning in Afghanistan all but stops when winter arrives, so there is often a late autumn increase in insurgent attacks. Recent events have more to do with this than with the Taliban's reading of American politics.

The argument that President Obama is postponing a decision on Afghanistan to placate the left wing of the Democratic Party to sustain support for health care reform an other initatives is also incredible. It is hard to imagine any political benefit that the administration might gain by formalizing its Afghanistan strategy in November rather than in August. In fact, the most plausible explanation for the lengthy deliberation is what might be called the "partner problem." Successful counterinsurgency normally requires deep political and economic reforms. Regime leaders often resist this since they have gained great personal benefit from the existing political and economic system. This means that the United States must simultaneously support its ally and make it understand that in the absence of deep reform, America will leave it to its own devices.  Prime Minister Maliki likely got this message through growing congressional opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq. The Obama administration's long assessment of Afghanistan is sending the same signal to President Karzai. This has already led him to accept a runoff election and may inspire him to rein in his regime's debilitating corruption.

But even if this makes perfect sense from a policy perspective, it may not resonate with the U.S. military. Americans are an impatient people, and their military perhaps more so. The military culture is geared toward quick and decisive action rather than protracted deliberation. It seeks clear victory rather than threat management. This is the reason that counterinsurgency itself--a process that takes years or decades and often leads to an ambiguous outcome rather than clear victory--is particularly difficult for the American military. But there is no operational reason for a rapid "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In Iraq, there was a window of opportunity which would have closed had the Bush administration not taken advantage of it. All of Iraq's communities were desperate for a change, so the "surge" of 2007 was the right action at the right time. There is no such closing window in Afghanistan: Nothing suggests that a major increase in the U.S. military presence would capitalize on an opportunity which might not be available later. Time is not running out. In fact, much of the pressure for a troop increase in Afghanistan is based on a misunderstanding of Iraq. The popular notion is that the Iraq troop "surge" was largely or solely responsible for snatching victory from impending defeat, and this could be replicated in Afghanistan. Neither part of that contention is accurate. The decline of the Iraq insurgency came from a "perfect storm" of conditions, not simply the American troop increase. And, more importantly, Afghanistan is so different in so many ways from Iraq that simply applying the Iraq formula would be ineffective. 

It is certainly true, though, that the U.S. military in Afghanistan needs better ways of reinforcing units under attack. But this could be done with far fewer than 40,000 additional troops. In fact, an increase that large would, as during the initial period of the Iraq "surge," lead to more American casualties. Again, the lessons of Iraq are inapplicable. In Iraq the casualty spike was temporary as the insurgency crumbled. In Afghanistan it could be open-ended.

President Obama would have avoided some of this hassle with the military if, like President Bush, he had undertaken his strategic reassessment before selecting a general to implement it, thus assuring that his new commander was fully on board with his decision. By sending Stanley McChrystal to Afghanistan in June 2009 and then undertaking its own high level assessment after McChrystal's own assessment became public, the Obama administration may be seen as at odds with the military if it does not accept McChrystal's recommendation for 40,000 additional troops. This was a major blunder best explained by the newness of the administration. But the deed is done. The reassessment is still needed.

Yet even if there are no strategic or operational reasons for a quick change in strategy, the Obama administration does owe its military and the American public a clearer explanation of its decision process. While there are good reasons for the delay, the impression is of vacillation and weakness. While the Bush administration took six months to reassess its Iraq strategy in 2006 and arrive at the "surge," there was never an image of meandering indecision. Whether warranted or not, the Obama administration's reassessment of its Afghanistan strategy is seen that way. This can and should be fixed. The American public and its military can be at least tolerably patient if it understands why it must be. Today, it does not.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

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