Obama’s Afghan war – a race against time

By Bernd Debusmann
August 27, 2009

Bernd Debusmann(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By making the war in Afghanistan his own, declaring it a war of necessity and sending more troops, President Barack Obama has entered a race against time. The outcome is far from certain.

To win it, the new strategy being put into place has to show convincing results before public disenchantment with the war saps Obama’s credibility and throws question marks over his judgment. Already, according to public opinion polls in August, a majority of Americans say the war is not worth fighting. Almost two thirds think the United States will eventually withdraw without winning.

There are similar feelings in Britain, which fields the second-largest contingent of combat troops in Afghanistan after the United States. A poll published in London this week showed that 69 percent of those questioned thought British troops should not be fighting in Afghanistan.

In the United States, almost inevitably in a country that never forgot the trauma of the only war it ever lost, 36 years ago, pundits are conjuring up the ghost of Vietnam. A lengthy analysis in the New York Times wondered whether Obama was fated to be another Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who kept escalating the Vietnam war.

The war in Afghanistan is drawing into its ninth year and chances are it will still be going badly when Obama is gearing up for his campaign for re-election in 2012. According to a study by the RAND institute, a think tank working for the military, counter-insurgency campaigns won by the government have averaged 14 years.

“The insurgent wins if he does not lose,” according to the U.S. Army’s counter-insurgency manual, “while the counterinsurgent loses if he does not win. Insurgents are strengthened by the common perception that a few casualties or a few years will cause the United States to abandon (the effort).” A key to winning: “firm political will and extreme patience.”

Patience is not an American virtue. The first call for Obama to set a “flexible timetable” for the withdrawal of American troops came this month, from Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Not exactly a reflection of firm political will and extreme patience.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgents not only have been winning by not losing, they have actually been gaining ground. In the words of the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, the situation in Afghanistan “is serious and is deteriorating.”

What does that mean? According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Taliban have expanded their area of influence from 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts in 2003 to some 160 districts by the end of 2008. But, says Cordesman, a widely-respected authority on military affairs, “the military dimension is only part of the story.”


The other part is a corrupt, incompetent government and an equally corrupt and inefficient system of disbursing international aid. In his war-of-necessity speech, Obama obliquely referred to that aspect of the Afghan war by saying it could not be won by military force alone. “We also need … development and good governance.”

Both have been in very short supply. “The Afghan government lost legitimacy over the past five years,” says Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Whether, and how quickly, it can regain it is open to doubt, no matter who emerges as the winner of the August 20 election in which President Hamid Karzai was running for a second five-year term. (Full results are due on September 3. Both Karzai’s camp and his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, have claimed victory on the basis of partial results.)

The extent of corruption and the lack of good governance are reflected by two international gauges – the Failed States Index compiled by the The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine and the annual Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group. Afghanistan ranks 7th on the failed states list and 176th (out of 180) on the corruption scale.

This is not an environment that lends itself to swift solutions. There are powerful vested interests in maintaining what Cordesman calls a dishonest system of power-brokering and corruption. Jean MacKenzie, a Kabul-based reporter, said in a recent guest column for Reuters that foreign assistance coming into Afghanistan was one of the richest sources of funding for the Taliban.

“It is the open secret no one wants to talk about … Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents,” MacKenzie wrote. “International donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.”

Until recently, most experts thought that the Taliban was financed largely from taxes the insurgents levied on the production of opium, the raw material for heroin. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last year (when he was not in government service) that “breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential or all else will fail.”

He no longer thinks that the insurgency is mostly funded by the opium trade. Instead, he says that the volume of money flowing into the Taliban coffers from sympathizers in Gulf states and elsewhere exceeds that of the drug trade.

“Obama inherited a disaster,” according to Riedel, “a war which has been under-funded and under-resourced for six of the past seven years.”  And what would happen if the Obama’s war of necessity went wrong and the United States pulled out of Afghanistan? In the Muslim world, it would be seen as “a triumph on a par with the withdrawal of Soviet forces” from Afghanistan after their disastrous nine-year war and occupation.

Not to mention the impact it would have on Obama’s political standing.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Michael Ham:

What Constitution? The Constitution itself was once used to support slavery and it’s used today to justify poverty because it doesn’t say that the people have the right to have free health-care. So what the U.S. really needs is a revolution and a new Constitution that clearly states what the government and the people should do, not make things so vague that you can justify this or that because the Constitution muddies the waters.

Say what you say about the vaunted flexibility of the U.S. Constitution, but it’s been used for over 200 years and it’s too vague for its own good. It’s time for the American people to let go of their attachment of their current Constitution and force their government to begin a new Constitutional Convention, in order to make a Constitution that truly brings equality and prosperity to the U.S..

Posted by Anoymous | Report as abusive

hmmm….I tend to think it was a spot on use of an adjective to describe your character.

In 18 years of service to this country’s military I have participated in humitarian operations in Africa, the arabian gulf, and South East Asia. I have patrolled our southern border for drug smugglers and fought wild fires in the pacific northwest…not to mention my 2 tours in Iraq and a what will be a future tour in Afghanistan. Do not try and tell me that I, nor my fellow servicemen, have not done anything for our country.

Your proposed terrorist scenario is way off base because you are thinking like an American – not a terrorist. There is nothing spectacular, debilitating, or symblematic about sending gunmen into a mall…which is why it has not happened to this point. If you think that is the threat, I guess ignorance truly is bliss.

Also, the US has a security presence all over the world and we have friends that will put in work in those 150 countries you mention. I suspect that AQ affiliates are disappearing all over Africa as we type…ghast…say it isn’t so!

My 2c, I do not believe there is another area that will require a major military deployment once Af/Pak is cleaned up.

Posted by jt | Report as abusive

Mr Ham. I have two questions for you.

1. Why do you define capitulation as ‘winning’ a war?

2. McCain got 45% of the vote and Obama got 53%. So which political parties represent mainstream America according to you? Would you say Nader, or Bob Barr?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

It would seem the most effective and efficient USUK success’s in Afghanistan to date has been made by the special forces. The SAS originated this form of warfare in Malaya in the 50′s by being better at jungle warfare than the guerrillas, and in Oman- better at desert warfare too.
The point is that they took the native form of war, learnt it, adapted it, and used it against their enemies.
This hasn’t happened in Afghanistan.
To those patriotic Americans that think your government’s increasingly corrupt and ineffectual:
If your militia’s are genuine, and not just beer swilling
civilian slobs with too much ammunition, why not volunteer for Afghanistan like the Arab boys are! Think about it, spend 5 years working with a culture that’s got far more in common with your constitutional forefathers, than any of your recent Republican/Democratic socialists, and come back to the World with some skills that’d be very useful in…ahem…’reinvigorating’ the spirit of the American Revolution!
Or else, would you kindly move out the way, the Chinese are coming through!

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive

If you make a Constitution specific it’ll be 100,000 pages that no on will look at closely and you’ll still have modern day lawyers picking at it so I don’t think a new Constitution is necessary. I think the old one does a good enough job at describing the role of government and what are supposed to be its vast number of limitations. Need a revolution? Couldn’t agree with you more on that one.


I can understand why you’d be offended, you’ve essentially devoted your life to the propaganda and lies our bureaucrats have spat on your face. Trust me I take no pride in saying I hate our government and that our forefathers who shed blood to make this country would be ashamed of what our leaders are doing to the people they’re supposed to represent. My scenario is right on target, Al-Qaeda could easily kill hundreds of Americans every single day in this country if their were a real terrorist threat. You can’t tell me that would have no effect on us, one day of 10 shootouts across the country would bring another stock market crash and have us all (and rightly so) freaking out from border to border.

Your humanitarian efforts abroad may have been nice things to do, but again that’s not the role of gov’t. We should use the money from those efforts and cut people’s taxes in order to let them decide on whether or not they want to donate money to those causes.

Al-Qaeda has grown despite the trillions we’ve dumped into the war on terror and the thousands of lives we’ve devoted shamelessly to its cause. Neutrality, like our forefathers wanted, is the goal to successful foreign policy. The 150 country line you said is one of the saddest, 47% of income generated in this country goes back to the government and a huge chunk of that is to sustain our empire expansion.

Fighting wildfires, patrolling the border, that’s what your job should be and thanks for doing that. Not the warmongering abroad or the “democracy spreading.” However if that were the purpose of our military about 90-95% of you and your military friends would lose their jobs. A 80-90% cut in military spending is about what we need.


1.) Because it gets americans lives out of the way of danger. I don’t want JT and his boys to die for nothing, like so many already have. If we stopped warmongering and used that to cut taxes our economy would be fixed almost immediately. So our lives would be better, and so would soldiers.

2.) Voter turnout is estimated at 56%. So a little more than half of America, so about 26% of our population voted for McCain and about 30% voted for Obama. Out of that group how many people voted for one of the other because they were the “lesser of 2 evils”? I’d say a pretty significant number. Bob Barr in my opinion is the same as Obama and Bush, look at his voting record. I also don’t think Nader represents mainstream America. I don’t think any of party that truly represents the majority. Everyone in America agrees on a few things, limited government and low taxes. The Libertarian party says they stand for these things but they lost a lot of credibility to me when they put Barr at the top of the party last year.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

I am wondering what your take is on Bosnia/Herzegovina and the U.S. led NATO mission which succeeded in stopping that war, and the attempts at ethnic cleansing taking place, and possibly prevented it’s escalation throughout the Balkans. And how about Cyprus,now in reunification talks. It has gone off the radar screen but fighting ended between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots ended years ago, thanks in part to modern day soldiers acting as peacekeepers. What if we do nothing in these conflicts or are too weak to do anything? Okay how about Rwanda and the genocide, and the subsequent spread of fighting to the Congo. America did nothing, despite appeals for help, and 100,000s of people died and starvation and war continuing. What is the worst terrorist threat to America and many other countries…it is the threat that the terrorist could get and use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. How much greater are the odds of that happening with the Taliban secure in the knowledge that they are not being pursued or worse running Afghanistan. Are you really advocating a militarily weak America? Do you also advocate a destabilized Pakistan? What about a nuclear war between Pakistan and India? How about the subjugation of woman, state sanctioned rape of wives, the indoctrination of children in religious schools, 12 year old soldiers, public beheadings, threats to cut off the fingers or hands of people who vote in an election to ensure it’s failure and promote their potential dictatorship.

Posted by Peter Adhearne | Report as abusive

Michael Ham,
Please don’t confuse me with Anoymous. My position is the exact opposite – I am all for the US Constitution as it is and against revolution or anything that even remotely resembles revolution. Besides I remember a country where Rights to Social Benefits (to name a few, Employment, Education, Recreation and, yes, Health Care) were enshrined in the Constitution. It was USSR. That country is no more.
Your remark about WW2 soldiers vs. modern day soldiers is really gross. A soldier honorably carrying his duties deserves respect even when his superiors deserve a noose. Regular Wehrmacht soldiers (but not SS members or OKW generals – those were war criminals) who fought for the nonsense of “Fuehrer und Faterland” deserve more respect than Mike who feels himself so brave in the privacy of his computer. I would like to see him spelling his grandstanding position out loud in the presence of soldiers just back from deployment – not sure if there will be enough teeth left to identify the body by dental records.
And, pardon me, what has Israel to do with Afghanistan? I thought you have enough brain as to not believe in “global Zionist conspiracy behind all ills of this world” nonsense. Looks like I have to admit my mistake on this one.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

That’s the problem with thinking in the short term.

By avoiding short term consequences, people are tricked into thinking that there are no consequences at all.

Pulling out of Afganistan might remove the short term consequences for our soldiers.

But it will undo all the effort of the last six years. And lead to terrible consequences for the innocent Afgani people. Even those who already serve the Taliban at gunpoint.

And a premature pullout will result in consequences for America and the Western world. Not today perhaps, but soon enough.

This is not 1938. America is no longer protected by seas, and is no longer capable of ignoring a world in conflict.

The Great Game will be played regardless of individual participation. Those nations who decide not to make an effort, lose by default.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Mr Ham is nothing more than a malcontent (and a douche) not worth your key strokes.

Posted by jt | Report as abusive

People are more touchy about the subject of soldiers than they are about the subject of their religion in 2009.

You may want the U.S. to be the one world government (if it isn’t already) who takes control of every single acre of the planet, I however agree with the founding fathers that we shouldn’t do that. We supported Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden and forever destroyed democracy in Iran in 1953 and in Chile and now the “democracies” we’ve spread into places like Afghanistan are even more corrupt than the “democracy” we support in Egypt.

This might sound like mean, but if countries have a problem with their government they should do the same thing we had to, revolt and create your own government.

For every hundred thousand you say we’ve saved I’ll give you a hundred thousand we’ve killed and more. Vietnam War, Wars in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, Oil for food program, Iran-Contra, the blood of tens of millions is on our hands.


I guess how honorably someone carries out a dishonorable task is inconsequential to me. Soldiers and Bureaucrats are alike in the idea that they think they know what’s better for the American people than the American people do. When bureaucrats want war and the people don’t, soldiers still fight them. Just look at Iraq and Vietnam and soon enough Afghanistan. We could have 90% of the people in this country against a war and if Congress wanted war you can be sure soldiers would fight it.

I’m not sure why you brought up a right to social benefits, I’m the most fiscally conservative person I know with regards to government that’s nothing I want to see happen.

What links do Israel and Afghanistan have? Simple, look at the reasoning Bin Laden gives you for 9/11. Let Israel have their sovereignty back and stop buying them off with weapons. Most countries of the world see the double standard we have with Israel, we have no issue with them annexing any land they want in Gaza but if Iraq does it we attack them. Exact same issue, but we treat it differently.

People don’t get offended by baseless attacks (which is why I’m not by any of the ones being thrown at me) they get offended by inconvenient truths that don’t fall hand in hand with the blather and lies they’ve been fed their entire lives.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Mr Ham – The US should use its military to proect its ‘national interests’. What in your opinion is the US national interest?

Posted by jt | Report as abusive

I was wandering where is this Arabian Gulf.?

Posted by Sean | Report as abusive

Mr Ham.

The Taliban are not active in Afganistan because America supports Israel.

They are active because they are an armed minority group, who want to take control of Afganistan and place it under theocratic rule.

The goal of the Taliban are to spread fundimentalist Islam, and to use deadly force when this spread is resisted.

Your approach is no different to the appeasement and isolationism which served the West so poorly in 1930.
The reason that the American government is not taking that approach is because it is unworkable.

Question time:

1. If America pulls out of Afganistan tomorrow, what do you think will happen to the Afgani people?

2. What will be the long term consequences of an Afganistan fully under Taliban control (eg. Pakistan)?

3. If America places an arms embargo on Israel, what do you think will happen? If it leads to an Arab attack on Israel, would you support the Arabs?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Patriotism is a religion, just like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Every government throughout history and even today combines patriotism with the mainstream religion of its citizens to form one super-nationalistic religion that they can use to persuade the dumb voters and soldiers to do stupid things like support war, pay high taxes, and tolerate incompetent leaders. Those of you stupid enough, especially you Americans, who believe in “fighting for freedom”, just what good is freedom to a dead man? Besides, most of your soldiers die from suicide, not enemy fire. Think about that. If you examine closely every war that has ever been fought, you will find that they have all been fought to settle the question, “Whose god is more powerful, ours or theirs?”

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Michael Ham,
The social benefits were brought up only because they were brought up by someone Anoymous (please note the spelling!) whom you mistook for me. Apparently you rush to reply without going into details of the post you are replying to.
Soldiers and bureaucrats are NOT the same. The former follow orders oftentimes based on dumbass decisions by the latter. Bureaucrats risk at most their position, they never look down the barrel.
Your ideas about Israel having something to do with Afghanistan show that you are either Antisemite or completely ignorant. I hope the latter is the fact, so here are some facts. Do you know the difference between cause and pretext? The Gleiwitz incident was just a pretext, the cause was the Nazi plans for establishing “the new order”. Likewise Israeli policies and indeed the very existence are a convenient pretext for Bin Laden, Arafats, and Ahmadinejads of all sizes and colors. If there was no Israel they’d invented something else. And by the way, Israel was an afterthought in Bin Laden’s demands to the West. Initially it was about the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and US support of Saudi and some other Arab regimes he had a bone to pick with. Israel just has a misfortune to be right next to Arab countries and own land Arabs believe to be theirs. If Israel disappeared overnight, the Arabs would then demand a good bit of Spain, the Balkans, in short every piece of land that was ever ruled by Muslims. If you think the Islamists will be appeased by selling Israel to them – no more than Hitler was appeased by Sudetenland.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I think it’s in our national interest to cut military in order to cut taxes and being neutral and trading with everyone. Good for American business, good for national security. Nobody hates the neutral guy.


I didn’t say the Taliban wouldn’t exist if we were neutral, I’m saying they wouldn’t hate America if we didn’t have double standards in the Middle East. We’re all adults I think we can rule out the “they hate our freedoms” jibberish and look at our foreign policy.

Appeasing and ignoring are 2 different things, if the Taliban attacks us attack them then leave. I wasn’t against the war until it turned into a nation-buidling/occupying project.

1.) Afghani people aren’t the concern of the US gov’t, well shouldn’t be. Should be American’s and struggling middle/lower class Americans could sure use that tax money that’s being thrown away in Afghanistan.

2.) I don’t know, but the last people I want determining who the government in Afghanistan should be are American bureaucrats. Remember who the last person was we propped up in Afghanistan? Mr. Bin Laden, that didn’t work out so well.

3.) No I wouldn’t support the Arabs, if the Israeli’s get attacked than the Israeli’s will have hundreds of nukes to defend themselves with. An Arab country attacking Israel (and they know it) would lead to that Arab country being completely annihilated.


My apologies on the incredible error of not noticing italics on the same word.

I’m talking about viewpoints of bureaucrats and soldiers, they both believe they know what’s better for the American people than the American people do. I’m awaare of the most war-hungry chicken-hawks in the U.S. who never fought a day in their lives. Obama/Bush/Cheney and if you look at pundits O’Reilly/Limbaugh/Hannity.

This is why you can’t speak out against the Israeli government in 2009. You can speak out against the American government and not be called a christian hater, you can speak out against the Egyptian government and not be a Muslim hater, but one word against Israel and you’re labeled a Jew hater and all rational conversation ends.

I never even mentioned anything remotely close to wanting Israel to be handed over to an Arab country. Like I said I want Israel to be a sovereign nation, not completely dependent on the U.S. for military support like they are now.

Comparing followers to Islam and Nazi’s is amazing though, especially since you’re trying to pull the prejudice/racist card on me.


Your post wasn’t directed at me but you’re right on the money. The more religious people the more they approve of war. You won’t see an evangelical-led anti-war movement in the U.S., you won’t see a Zionist-led anti-war movement in Israel, you won’t see a Jihadist-led anti-suicide bomb campaign in Afghanistan. I’m an atheist and am very thankful for such, I’m glad I don’t feel like I’m a member of the chosen people and need the world to be removed of all those who aren’t.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Mr Ham,

Be nuetral, huh? What about the last 2,500 years of human history makes you think being nuetral is an option? Man is not a peaceful animal.

Here are a couple reasons why we should stay in Afghanistan:

-Afghanistan is a key part of the solution to a larger regional probelm that involves 2 x nuclear armed countries (nuclear war is bad for everyone…to include US taxpayers and investors)

-The poppy fields and ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan currently provide vital capabilities to the global jihadist movement.

(Also, the US should have assisted the Afghans after they defeated Russia in the late 80′s.)

For the record, defending the country and enforcing the laws are the government’s primary responsibilities to the ‘people’ as specified by the founders. Wasn’t it during our founding father’s period that the quote “millions for defense but not a cent for tribute” was coined (ironically…not too long before Jefferson got cold feet and paid off the barbary pirates)?

Posted by jt | Report as abusive

Sun Tzu had it right centuries ago.

A war can be swift and conducted with skill. Or it can be swift and clumsy.

But a war can never be long and skilled. Sooner or later, time will wear you down.

The issue here is that we are committed to long term occupation, and creation of stable government. And this will take time and money, for what should essentially be a UN matter.

Hopefully our generals will learn this lesson, when the time comes to take out Iran. We will do all the usual bombing and military destruction, but skip the occupation part.

After all, once Iran has lost it’s nuclear plants, economy, government and military, why would America need to occupy it?

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

“The more religious people the more they approve of war. You won’t see an evangelical-led anti-war movement in the U.S”

You have obviously overlooked Catholics – the largest religious group in the world – the majority of whom are “anti-war.” In addition, Catholics in the US are lead by bishops, and ultimately are led by the Pope; all qualified “evangelicals.”

Now, you are clearly misguided in you opinions. Perhaps I know why. You, like many other Gentiles, confuse aversion to war with appeasement and pacifism. The difference between these concepts can be compared to the differences between Chamberlain and Churchill, or between Nixon(or better, Kissinger) and Reagan, respectively. History has outed Nixon and Chamberlain – appeasers both – as failures that left their respective countries weak and vulnerable. Churchill, however, saved England and Reagan was the first president to negotiate a significant reduction in strategic weapons with the Soviets – a goal the pacifists and appeasers claimed to champion yet were never able to achieve.

Posted by matthew | Report as abusive

THere is a difference between war and insurgency – obviously you do not know it. However, nice quote. Maybe next time you google Jomini or Clausewitz and pull another line from the wiki so you can impress the board with your vast knowledge of ‘war’…

although we can agree that the initial efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan were mishandled by the old school military leadership.

Posted by jt | Report as abusive