Obama’s first foreign policy blunder
This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.
The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself — until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 — had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.
Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.
In a widely noted November 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he emphasized his belief that the war had been not just a “failure of implementation” but “also a failure of conception,” going on to argue that “the rationale behind the war,” including an excessive faith that “we can impose democracy on a country through military force,” was “misguided.”
Some thought they heard echoes of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous 1967 speech declaring opposition not just to the war in Vietnam but to “a far deeper malady of the American spirit” that, if not confronted then, could lead to other misguided wars in other countries also waged in the name of guaranteeing liberty.
But Obama had long made a clear distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq as an unnecessary war of choice and a diversion from the main battle against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He supported the war in Afghanistan as a justified response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and necessary to America’s future security. On that basis Obama had harshly criticized the Bush administration for diverting military resources from Afghanistan to Iraq after 2003. And during his presidential campaign Obama had talked about sending three to five more brigades to Afghanistan as he drew down U.S. combat forces in Iraq.
Within a month of taking office, Obama approved a 17,000-troop increase for Afghanistan. That was less than the top U.S. commander there, General David McKiernan, had requested. But it was within the range Obama had called for during the campaign. It amounted to a roughly 50 percent rise in troop strength.
Just two months later, with the military situation in Afghanistan continuing to deteriorate, Obama removed General McKiernan and replaced him with General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal was favored by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General David Petraeus, the former Iraq commander then in charge of all U.S. troops in the Middle East and Central Asia; and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — all three of them Bush administration holdovers. During the Bush years McChrystal had made his name as the leader of the elite Joint Special Operations Command for Afghanistan and Iraq — the same command that was later to dispatch Navy Seals to kill bin Laden in Pakistan. In Iraq, McChrystal’s JSOC commandos had been responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein and for tracking down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and calling in the air strikes that killed him. JSOC units had also been investigated for abusing Iraqi prisoners, making McChrystal a surprising choice for someone with Obama’s stated views on how and how not to fight Al Qaeda.
But Obama was looking for someone who could quickly turn around what was by then a faltering seven-and-a-half-year-old war effort. McChrystal’s reputation as a tough, can-do commander and his endorsement by the Pentagon’s top military and civilian leaders counted in his favor.
Instead of the rapid turnaround Obama was hoping for, McChrystal brought bad news that pointed to an even longer, less conclusive war. Soon after arriving in Afghanistan the new commander concluded, in an assessment that he improperly made public while Obama was still weighing it, that a further rapid infusion of 40,000 to 80,000 American troops was required. Otherwise, he argued, continuing Taliban gains would soon make the war unwinnable.
With those extra troops, McChrystal said, the military deterioration might be halted within a year, clearing the way for a long-term counterinsurgency struggle aimed at winning over Afghan civilian hearts and minds. Only at that point, McChrystal argued, could America begin safely drawing down its forces.
McChrystal the war-fighting commando leader had morphed into McChrystal the embodiment of the new counterinsurgency doctrine Petraeus had developed in Iraq. And as in Iraq, the doctrine glossed over the fundamental question of how American military forces could win over civilian hearts and minds in the absence of a credible, effective, and willing local partner.
Six-digit troop levels and a lengthy military commitment were not what Obama had originally had in mind when he had criticized Bush for diverting troops to Iraq in 2003 instead of clinching the victory he believed was then within America’s grasp in Afghanistan. But whatever might have been possible in 2003 was no longer possible by 2009, with a resurgent Taliban operating from Pakistani sanctuaries and increasing numbers of Afghans disenchanted with President Karzai’s government and with U.S. and NATO military operations.
Obama had unwisely ensnared himself in a trap with no obvious escape hatch. He could not easily deny his handpicked new commander, General McChrystal, the resources that the latter had publicly declared to avert defeat. But even with those additional troops, McChrystal could not promise Obama eventual, let alone early, victory. Meanwhile the American public was losing patience with the lengthening stalemated war. And with each passing month it became clearer that America was fighting on not so much in support of a viable Afghan government as in the vague hope that one day a viable Afghan government might emerge.
Obama’s range of bad options was beginning to resemble those that had faced Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. The whole cost-benefit equation had changed so drastically since Obama first called for more troops in Afghanistan that the U.S. military commitment now needed to be seriously reassessed and perhaps written off. But after all Obama had said and done, he seemed to feel, as Johnson had felt in regard to Vietnam in 1964, that he could not step back and risk the likely military result — in this case, a Taliban victory. It was the same falsely constrained emergency state decision making, the same implicit assumptions of universal containment, that had brought eight more years of war and more than 55,000 additional American casualties in Vietnam.
Obama’s decision to step forward — or as he presented it, to escalate in 2010 and hope to begin withdrawing in 2011 — carries heavy strategic costs as well as potential political costs. The most important of these is extending and deepening Washington’s commitment to an obsolescent and dangerously counterproductive strategy for protecting American security. That commitment only deepened when, after a second and even more embarrassing episode of McChrystal speaking out of turn — this time being quoted expressing scorn for top administration officials in an article in Rolling Stone magazine — Obama fired McChrystal and replaced him with Petraeus, stating more emphatically than he ever had before, “I have a responsibility to do what is — whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”
There is no question that Obama has that second responsibility. But an open-ended commitment to military “success” in Afghanistan could prove a very costly distraction from pursuing that broader strategic goal.