Afghanistan: Is the July 2011 Deadline Smart Policy?

By on March 8, 2010

Is President Obama's July 2011 deadline for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan smart policy? Two foreign policy experts debate.

stephen-schlesingerStephen Schlesinger
The Century Foundation

Stephen Schlesinger is a fellow at The Century Foundation and former publisher of the World Policy Journal.


michael-rubinMichael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Civil-Military Relations, and lecturer for Johns Hopkins University's graduate program in National Security Studies.

Part 1: Stephen Schlesinger: The Afghanistan Withdrawal: Why Obama Was Right to Insist on a Deadline

Let me start by citing President Obama’s exact words on his much-publicized July 2011 deadline for American forces to start leaving Afghanistan. Obama stated at West Point on December 1, 2009, that “taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly taking into account conditions on the ground.”Obama made clear in his statement that his deadline marked the beginning of a draw-down from Afghanistan. He did not say he was undertaking a full pullout of U.S. troops on that date. Furthermore, he was emphatic that his change in strategy would be dependent on “conditions on the ground.” Quite evidently he inserted that phrase to give himself wiggle room to revise amend and reboot his tactics if the war worsens by the summer of 2011, if there are still not enough Afghan forces available to protect the government at that time, or for some other unanticipated contingency. In doing this, he was making clear to the Afghans that the U.S. was not walking away from the country.

Why a Deadline?

Why should he have set a deadline at all? For the simple reason that if you don’t insist on a deadline, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, will do little to reform his government, end corruption, and take over the defense of his own country. As the current U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, wrote in a confidential cable to Washington last November, “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development. He and much of his circle do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

Or as British Afghan expert Rory Stewart, writing in the January 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books, saw it: “As long as the U.S. asserted that Afghanistan was an existentialist threat the front line in the war on terror and that therefore failure was not an option, the U.S. had no leverage over Karzai.”

Thus, President Obama, to exert pressure on Karzai to end his reliance on America, had to establish a clear finish date by which time Karzai had to take fuller responsibility over his own nation’s fate. Yes, as Obama said, we are still intent on tracking down and defeating al-Qaeda worldwide, but in Afghanistan, we can at best contain Kabul’s greatest peril—the Taliban—and “deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” But Obama was saying we don’t have the resources to do more.

Don’t Forget the Homefront

And there is another reason for Obama’s decision to set a deadline—namely, our dire economic situation at home. As Obama explained in his address:

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. … We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. … So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars. … That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.

Indeed, by the deadline of July 2011, the U.S. will have lost hundreds more American lives as well as spent billions more U.S. tax dollars in Afghanistan—and that’s clearly as much as the American populace, by Obama’s judgment, is willing to put up with after ten years.

Obama’s decision in setting a completion timeline, in short, is the result of a hard-nosed and realistic assessment by an experienced political leader of his own nation’s capacity to endure further continuation of wartime obligations. In short, just as Obama was being realistic about the need to compel Karzai to take on the governance of his own his country, Obama was also being realistic about the limited willingness of our own citizenry to support the Afghans as opposed to dealing with the needs of our country at home. Obama was acting as the leader of a great nation who must calibrate his country’s national interests in a balanced and proportionate way.

Nudging the Karzai Regime

What else does a deadline accomplish? A deadline will likely give the Karzai government more credibility as it seeks to begin serious negotiations with the Taliban, perhaps along the lines of a coalition government (a la Nepal), especially if Obama’s surge manages to blunt the Taliban offensive and convince the insurgents that their cause is futile. Karzai indeed is already making overtures to the Taliban, possibly as a result of the Obama deadline.

And as the Taliban is a local Pashtun group, not a global Islamic extremist movement or al-Qaeda, there may be grounds for both parties to work out a deal, as Karzai too is a fellow Pashtun. The Taliban have insisted all along that they won’t start talks with Karzai until the U.S. sets a date for withdrawal. This means that even if Karzai makes no progress with the Taliban, the Obama deadline at least meets the foe’s condition and will test the Taliban’s readiness to abide by it. And a settlement with the Taliban could well mean the end of al-Qaeda, since many in the Taliban cannot forgive al-Qaeda for its 9/11 attacks on the U.S., which led to the Taliban’s defeat in 2001. In any event, most of al-Qaeda’s band have already fled to Pakistan or Yemen.

Neighbors Being Neighborly

The deadline is also a signal to our compatriots in the region that the U.S. and its NATO allies are not going to continue shouldering the burden of the Afghan war indefinitely and that the countries that border Afghanistan or have interests in it—including Russia, Iran, India, China, and the various “stans”—must now themselves become engaged in this conflict, supplying resources and forces to defeat the enemy.

One may recall that Russia, Iran, India, and Tajikistan originally assisted the U.S. in ousting the Taliban in 2001 out of fear that otherwise the Taliban militants would foment domestic Islamic insurgencies within their borders and possibly spur narcotics traffic throughout the region. Today, Iran, India, China, and Saudi Arabia (among other nations) are already giving economic aid to Kabul and would surely increase their assistance if the U.S. reduced its own.

How Serious Is U.S. Commitment?

A deadline also has the advantage of alerting our own armed forces in advance that Washington is not going to engage in an endless war and the U.S. military must, from the start of the surge, adjust its scope of action within these political limits. The existence of a date certain, in fact, serves as a checkmate on any effort by our military leaders to try, through news leaks or public appeals, to circumvent Obama and prolong the war. As Rory Stewart noted in the New York Review of Books:

By no longer committing the U.S. to defeating the Taliban or state-building, [Obama] dramatically reduces the objectives and costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last.

There is concern nonetheless that a deadline may cause confusion in the ranks of some of our Afghan and Pakistani allies regarding how serious the U.S. commitment is to the mission of getting rid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and helping to secure their governments—and could cause some of our NATO brethren to reconsider the depth of their own involvement in the Afghan war. But Obama’s explanation of his deadline in his West Point speech helps to dispel doubts about America’s long-term willingness to engage in the region. Whatever he does, though, Obama will have a difficult time persuading the Pakistanis to drop their support of the Afghan Taliban so long as Pakistan and India remain at loggerheads over Kashmir. This might change if Pakistan persuades the Afghan Taliban to drop its ties to al-Qaeda—in which case the U.S. might accept a continuing Paki-Taliban sphere of influence in Afghanistan.

Will the Taliban Wait Us Out?

Finally, most of the controversy over Obama’s deadline has come with the argument that the Taliban, knowing in advance that there is a withdrawal date, will simply wait until the Americans leave in order to topple the Karzai regime. Still, as I noted earlier, the Taliban have said all along that it will not negotiate with the Karzai government or with the Americans until the U.S. commits to a departure date. Thus, Obama’s July 2011 date could actually lead to talks rather than to an upsurge in Taliban fighting. In any case, it is worth testing the Taliban on whether they are serious about negotiations or not.

Furthermore, this argument does not take into consideration the fact that the U.S. introduction of some 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan may severely damage the Taliban by July 2011 and allow the training of a sizable number of Afghan troops and, in addition, accelerate Western help in reviving Afghanistan’s domestic economy. All of this together might give the Taliban yet another reason to enter into negotiations.

In any case, the U.S. is not about to let the Karzai government collapse. It may pull out many of its troops from the country after 2011, but it will continue to supply military equipment and financial aid to the regime. As President Obama said in his West Point speech, even after the deadline “we will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.”

Getting the U.N. Involved

One last impact that a deadline might provide is a specific timeline for outside negotiators, such as the U.N., to get involved in trying to settle the conflict a la the loya jirga route. Though President Obama has never publicly recommended the U.N. as a possible intermediary to negotiate an end to the conflict, he did in his West Point speech single out the U.N. as one of America’s most important “partners” in Afghanistan, helping “to pursue a more effective civilian strategy.” Already, in fact, some U.N. officials have made contact with the Taliban.

Thus, presumably at the time of the turnover, the U.N. might use its good offices to convene a peace conference akin to its 2002 conference, setting up Afghanistan’s interim government—except this time the U.N. would organize the gathering on a global basis, bringing in all of the states that border Afghanistan and all of the NATO countries with troops on the ground, as well as India and Russia, to hammer out a comprehensive settlement plan. Such an initiative would be geared to serve the interests of all parties—including the Taliban—and meld together all the disparate geographical ideological cultural and political interests in play.

Part 2: Michael Rubin: The Afghanistan Withdrawal: Why Obama Was Wrong to Insist on a Deadline

On December 1, after months of careful deliberation, President Obama announced a surge strategy for Afghanistan. “As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” he told an assembled crowd at West Point, and “after 18 months our troops will begin to come home.”

The surge in Afghanistan was modeled after the successful strategy that President Bush implemented in Iraq. Indeed, in the quote offered by Stephen Schlesinger, Obama drew parallels to the Iraq experience. By enunciating a start date for a withdrawal, however, Obama undercut the utility and effectiveness of his surge.

The Surge: Afghanistan Edition

The surge in Iraq succeeded because it was as much a psychological strategy as a military one. Sending in troops is not enough. From the beginning of the war in Iraq, military strategists called for the Pentagon to send more troops, and Bush on several occasions ramped up the U.S. forces in Iraq. In July 2006—that is, six months before Bush announced the surge—The New York Times described an influx of U.S. troops into Baghdad as “a version of the ‘ink blot’ counterinsurgency strategy of grabbing a piece of terrain stabilizing it and gradually expanding it.”

What made the Iraq surge different from previous deployments was its context. In the November 2006 elections, Democrats trounced Republicans, picking up thirty-one seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate, giving Democrats control of both houses of Congress. Many analysts described the elections as a referendum on the Iraq war. “The 2006 midterm elections look like a referendum on Iraq a war in which President Bush and his party have lost not just the political center but significant chunks of their base,” opined ABC News in just one example.

The result emboldened Iraqi insurgents, who saw continued U.S. commitment as tenuous. I watched Iran’s al-Alam and Hezbollah al-Manar television, both Arabic language services beamed into Iraq, which broadcast footage of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, American Marines leaving Beirut in 1983, and U.S. forces fleeing Somalia in 1993. Such broadcasts sought to imply that the United States lacked staying power.

Hence the importance of Bush’s January 2007 speech: “America must succeed in Iraq,” the president said, announcing deployment of another 20,000 troops. “Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have,” Bush explained. He then defined victory: “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world—a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.” Nowhere did Bush speak of withdrawal.

Lost in Translation

It is true, as Schlesinger points out, that Obama did not set a date for the completion of the withdrawal, but he signaled its finite nature. And herein lays the problem. The reason Obama spoke of a deadline was not to pressure Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai but rather to assuage constituencies in the United States increasingly wary of open-ended U.S. involvement in the country. But in the Middle East and South Asia, perception matters far more than reality.

Diplomatic affairs expert Omar Sharifi, speaking on Afghan television, declared, “Today the Afghans unfortunately lost the game and failed to get a long-term commitment from the international community.,” Likewise, Afghan political analyst Ahmad Sayedi observed, “When the USA sets a timeline of 18 months for troop withdraw, this by itself boosts the morale of the opponents and makes them less likely to take any step towards reconciliation.”

It is absolutely correct to say that Obama did not say that all—or even a significant fraction—of U.S. troops would withdraw in July 2011, but this is what was heard not only by U.S. allies and adversaries in Afghanistan but also by the governments and media in regional states such as Pakistan Iran and even Russia.

Indeed, it appears Obama’s advisors recognized their error and scrambled to clarify. Speaking on Meet the Press Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “We’re not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline.” On December 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the withdrawal would “probably” take two to three years but that “there are no deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out.” He made an unannounced visit to Kabul to underline his message. Sayed Masud, a lecturer at Kabul University, spoke of how Obama’s announcement “was a big mistake” that had weakened the morale of Afghan forces, which until then had been on the upswing.

Forcing Karzai’s Hand?

Rationalizing that the deadline would force Karzai to better govern is not credible. Indeed, while Schlesinger cites U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry’s opposition to the troop surge, President Obama himself appears to have dismissed the substance of Eikenberry’s cable.

The problem with the logic that a firm deadline pressures positively Karzai’s government is that it assumes that Washington and Kabul are alone in the sandbox. The fact remains, however, that Karzai has no shortage of potential foreign partners whose outlook may sharply diverge from U.S. interests. Indeed, the reason why Karzai was such an attractive figure at the December 2001 Bonn Conference was he was the one Afghan leader who could talk to all sides. For a short period of time in the mid-1990s, he had even allied himself with the Taliban.

While I certainly agree with Schlesinger that it is important to lever all aspects of U.S. power to nudge Karzai in the right direction, Washington must recognize that Karzai has other options. Obama and Karzai have had a tense relationship dating back to Obama’s days as a senator. During a July 2008 trip to Afghanistan, Obama chided Karzai for failure to promote good governance. “I told President Karzai that I thought that he needs to really focus on issues of corruption and counternarcotics and to counter the narcotics trade much more aggressively than has been done so far,” Obama said. After winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, Obama blasted Karzai in the second presidential debate, declaring “We have to have a government that is responsive to the Afghan people, and frankly it’s just not responsive right now.” Shortly before Joe Biden became vice president, a meeting with Karzai grew so tense that Biden stormed out of the meeting.

It was in this context that, even before Obama launched his policy review, Karzai began considering other options. Shortly after Obama’s victory, Karzai suggested that if the White House did not like his policy—in this case, outreach to Mullah Omar—they could simply leave Afghanistan. Likewise, speaking to a visiting United Nations Security Council team, Karzai himself called for a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. When Karzai makes such statements to increase pressure on Washington, it holds that U.S. threats along the same vein backfire.

The Pakistan Problem

Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and even China are willing to move in at Karzai’s invitation and fill any vacuum the U.S. leaves behind. I’m not as sanguine as Schlesinger that any of Afghanistan’s neighbors would ever involve themselves positively from a standpoint of U.S. national interests.

Pakistani behavior has already changed for the worse as a result of Obama’s deadline. Some analysts on Pakistani television pointed out how Obama’s deadline would embolden the Taliban, while others said the July 2011 benchmark would at the very least lead policymakers to base decisions on an artificial deadline rather than on-the-ground reality.

While Pakistani authorities had previously been reluctant to approach the Taliban after Obama announced the finite U.S. commitment, Pakistan’s army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani offered to mediate directly with the Taliban. According to The New York Times “Pakistani officials familiar with General Kayani’s thinking said that, even as the United States adds troops to Afghanistan, he has determined that the Americans are looking for a fast exit.”

A Hasty Exit

Obama’s deadline for withdrawal snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. He emboldened Afghanistan’s adversaries and undermined the chance for U.S. success. His advisers engaged in projection—assuming that adversaries’ calculations and thought processes would mirror their own. Rather than pressure Karzai to embrace better governance, with one throw-away line, Obama did the opposite.

It is not too late for the President to recognize the psychological aspect of the surge and state clearly that he will settle for nothing less than victory. Unfortunately, until he does, U.S. servicemen on the frontlines will pay the price.

Part 3: Stephen Schlesinger: Afghanistan Deadline Is Smart Policy: A Reply to Michael Rubin

There are a number of points I would like to address as regards Michael Rubin’s statement in opposition to President Obama’s announcement of the July 2011 date by which American troops are to start withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Apples and Oranges

First, I am not at all convinced that the U.S. surge in Iraq provides, as Rubin suggests, a useful example by which President Obama can consider handling the U.S. surge in Afghanistan. The political and socio-economic situations in both nations are quite distinct in several ways:

  • Iraq, by contrast to Afghanistan, is a developed nation. It contains a well-educated populace, a substantial urban middle-class, a potentially advanced economy, and enormous oil wealth. Afghanistan has none of these assets. Its agricultural economy is backward, its income has come principally from outlawed crops such as poppies instead of natural resources, and its population is by and large rural, poor, and illiterate.
  • Despite the fact that they are divided among three main tribes (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurds), Iraqis are accustomed to living under a centralized government. Afghanistan, by comparison, remains a highly decentralized land in which tribes and sub-tribes and warlords exercise most local control.
  • The insurgency in Iraq is an offshoot of its smallest tribe, the Sunnis, while the uprising in Afghanistan is a breakaway group from its largest tribe, the Pashtuns—and at present there is no comparable “awakening movement” among the Pashtuns as there was among the Sunnis in Iraq.
  • Afghanistan is one-and-one-half times larger than Iraq and has a far more rugged and remote landscape than its Middle Eastern counterpart.

Now it is true that in both nations, an American president has dispatched additional U.S. troops to forestall the possible collapse of an indigenous elected government. But it was President Bush who created the troubled strategic situation in Iraq by invading it under false pretenses. Soon enough, he found himself facing an insurgency. The only way for Bush to ward off potential defeat was to dispatch more forces (something most observers said he should have done at the beginning of the U.S. invasion). Bush’s surge was, in short, basically designed to save his own hide, not to reverse a defeatist psychology in America. And even after he undertook the operation, he still could not define when a supposed “victory” would take place in Iraq.

President Obama, on the other hand, was dealing with an Afghan regime that had long harbored the al-Qaeda militants who engineered the 9/11 attacks on the United States. This gave him legitimate grounds for his surge. And since, as a presidential candidate, Obama had vowed to move U.S. troops from Iraq (and America) to Afghanistan to crush al-Qaeda and preserve the Afghan government, in adding more troops to Afghanistan he was only carrying through his campaign promises.

Throwing the Left a Bone?

I find myself at odds too with Rubin’s assertion that Obama’s deadline for beginning the draw-down of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has mainly been about pleasing his anti-war constituency at home. Yes, Obama was responding to the exhaustion Americans are feeling about our involvement in the Afghan war. But Obama clearly took to heart the warning from his closest advisors—including the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry—that unless Washington pressured Karzai to end corruption and take full responsibility for the governance of his country, there was going to be little change in his administration, making Karzai an even less credible alternative to the Taliban. Now it is true, as Rubin says, that Eikenberry did lose the argument against putting in more U.S. troops, but he won the argument about setting a date for withdrawal.

Karzai’s Predicament

As to the notion that Obama’s threat of a U.S. withdrawal timeline has since produced a pushback by Karzai that now threatens Obama’s strategy, I find that argument unpersuasive.

The idea that Karzai could find other “foreign partners” to help him if he were to end his partnership with Washington—or, more explosively, Karzai’s statement that if the White House did not like his policy in negotiating with Taliban, the U.S. could simply leave his country—appears to most observers as a nationalistic entreaty designed to boost his standing among voters, deflect attention from the venality of his regime, and position himself as “independent” of the Americans. But his threats are hardly realistic.

Where, for example, would Karzai find another nation willing to expend billions of dollars and the lives of its soldiers on behalf of Afghanistan—and for over a nine-year period? And where would Karzai be if the U.S. actually withdrew from Afghanistan? Without the U.S., Karzai would face abject defeat. And Karzai knows it. Contrary to Rubin’s assertion, Washington and Kabul are indeed alone in the sandbox.

In any case, the U.S. has never disagreed with Karzai’s efforts to reach out to the Taliban for talks. The only condition the White House has placed on these discussions is that the Taliban agree to sever ties with al-Qaeda and lay down their weapons as part of any settlement.

Lastly, Rubin mentions that Karzai himself has wished for a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. This seems to put into doubt Rubin’s entire argument against a draw-down date.

Sending the Wrong Signals?

As to the argument that fixing of a time certain for U.S. departure from Afghanistan sends the wrong signals to Karzai, the Pakistanis, and the Taliban, most of the evidence Rubin presents for this position are quotations from diplomatic affairs experts political analysts and Arabic TV analysts—not from the parties in the struggle itself. Of course, commentators of all stripes will always have their own opinions on the meaning of the July 2011 date. But there are just as many other media observers whom Rubin has not mentioned who have argued the contrary position on Obama’s deadline.

Those who have raised doubts about the import of Obama’s withdrawal deadline clearly have not read his speech. Yes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did have to reiterate key points about the meaning of the deadline not because of the language Obama used but because the media—both foreign and domestic—distorted what Obama stated.

And finally, Obama’s deadline has not apparently stopped the Taliban from talking privately with Saudi Arabia, the Pakistanis, the Karzai government, the United States, and the United Nations about a possible resolution of the conflict. This suggests that the Taliban is not simply waiting around for July 2011 before it will act.

Now it is true, as Rubin pointed out, that Pakistan’s military leader, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is reportedly convinced that the Americans are looking for a “fast exit.” But one must remember that U.S.-Pakistani relations have for a long time been difficult. There has been distrust on both sides for years. Still, Kayani has nonetheless allowed the U.S. to expand its drone strikes throughout the troubled western provinces of Pakistan—suggesting he does not fear an abrupt U.S. departure from his own country.

And the U.S. has already indicated to Kayani that, as part of any possible settlement, it would be amenable to Pakistan sharing a sphere of influence with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan if the insurgents agree to cut their ties to al-Qaeda. This suggests that both the Pakistanis and the Americans are actually working on an acceptable post-war accommodation, one that may have been pushed forward by Obama’s deadline.

Moreover, if there are any doubts about the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to the Afghan struggle, the recent American action in Helmand Province should put an end to those fears and to the “perception over reality” battle. The U.S. is now killing or dispersing large concentrations of Taliban in Afghanistan. And the U.S. has in addition made it very clear it will stick with the Afghan government after any withdrawal. Obama said in his West Point address that following his deadline, “we will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to insure that they can succeed over the long haul.” Kayani has evidently overlooked Obama’s statement—purposely or not.

Finally, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, the deadline is already having other salutary impacts—e.g., on our military, on putting pressure on more regional powers to help the Afghans, on enforcing a test of the Taliban’s own commitment to talks once the U.S. departs, and on offering a possible pathway to peace talks under the umbrella of the United Nations.

An Act of Simple Realism

In the end, Obama’s withdrawal date does not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as Rubin claims. Instead, it is an act of simple realism on the part of a seasoned government in Washington that sees how it must deal with a conflicted future. Obama’s strategy will in fact guarantee a freely elected government in Kabul—though, as Obama has acknowledged, the U.S. and its allies can never completely knock out the Taliban. At best, it can ensure that the Taliban will not overthrow the Afghan democracy. But if everything goes right, the U.S. strategy could eventually lead to a reconciliation between the Taliban and the current Afghan regime.

Part 4: Michael Rubin: Afghanistan Deadline Is Not Smart Policy: A Reply to Stephen Schlesinger

Stephen Schlesinger has a remarkably rosy reading of President Obama’s speech at West Point. No matter how he reads it, though, the reality is that the U.S. will begin to abandon Afghanistan yet again in July 2011. And it will not bode well for the war on terrorism.

The Iraq Surge Is the Model for Afghanistan

While Schlesinger may not be convinced that the Iraqi surge provided a useful example by which President Obama shaped his Afghanistan surge, both the White House and the Pentagon appear to disagree.

As he sought the Democratic nomination for president, then-Senator Obama criticized Bush’s surge strategy. At a July 19, 2007, campaign stop in New Hampshire, for example, Obama declared, “Here’s what we know. The surge has not worked.” Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press four months later, Obama argued that the surge in Iraq had already backfired, declaring, “George Bush continued to want to pursue a course that didn’t withdraw troops from Iraq but actually doubled down and initiated the surge.… Not only have we not seen improvements, but we’re actually worsening potentially a situation there.” Within months, however, Obama had a change of heart and scrubbed criticism of the surge from his website.

Similarly, replication of the Iraq surge is ubiquitous in the U.S. military’s discussions of counterinsurgency strategy. On May 11, 2009, Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan, curtailing General David McKiernan’s tour in that position. McChrystal’s appointment was no accident: As commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal played a key role in implementing the surge in Iraq.

Iraq and Afghanistan: More Similar Than Not

It is easy to point out differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but those cited by Schlesinger cites are either partisan bugaboos or irrelevant to questions over the wisdom of Obama’s deadline. (To quibble, however, neither Sunni Arabs in Iraq nor the Pushtuns in Afghanistan are tribes; they are a sectarian group and an ethnic group, respectively.)

Schlesinger finds no “awakening movement” in Afghanistan but misunderstands what the movement was about in Iraq: The various al-Qaeda groups operating in Iraq’s al-Anbar province ran roughshod over local elites. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for example, was not Iraqi but Jordanian. Iraqis are nationalistic, and they resented the insurgents’ imposition of a pan-Islamist ideology at the expense of local culture. Tribal figures broke their accommodation with al-Qaeda and made their alliance with the United States, because they believed that the Bush administration would not abandon them to their enemies for the sake of an artificial Washington deadline.

Afghani Nationalism

Schlesinger should not imagine that any Afghan, Pushtun or otherwise, wants to live under the Taliban; indeed, many Afghans are assisting U.S. forces against the Taliban. While the Taliban sought to project an image in the 1990s of an Afghan movement prioritizing rule of law, such a reputation was undeserved.

When I visited the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in March 2000, more than five years after the group first emerged in Kandahar, ordinary Afghan Pushtuns chafed at the participation of Punjabis and other non-Pushtuns in the movement and in their lives. They complained not only of Taliban abuses toward women but also of the arbitrary justice applied in the name of religion (or at least the Taliban’s interpretation of it). Today, Taliban leaders seek to root themselves in Afghan nationalism. Mullah Omar, for example, trumpets his supposed Hotaki roots in order to claim the legitimacy bestowed from being a descendant of Afghanistan’s founding dynasty (1709–1738). In Taliban propaganda, Mullah Omar often depicts himself as Dost Mohammad (r. 1826–1839; 1843–1863), whose forces routed the British army in the first Anglo-Afghan War. In contrast, he labels Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai as a modern-day Shah Shuja Durrani (r. 1839–1842), the weak ruler whom the British tried to prop up with such disastrous results.

Nationalist patina is not enough, however. The shadow government that the Taliban has now established, with governors and ministers parallel to those of the Karzai administration, does not engage in development, nor is it any less abusive of traditional local authority than it was a decade ago.

This does not mean that Afghans will not make accommodation with the Taliban—or any other power—should the Obama administration telegraph the limits of its commitment. Afghans famously switch sides to be on the winning team. While Americans see defection as treason, Afghan culture prioritizes staying alive. There are few Afghan politicians and powerbrokers who during the past three decades did not switch sides to be on the winning side. Hamid Karzai, for example, worked first for the Mujahideen before affiliating briefly with the Taliban after that group’s rise before finally joining the Northern Alliance ahead of its victory. Karzai’s vice president, Mohammad Fahim, is no different: During the Soviet occupation, Fahim was a deputy to Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood. In 1994, during the Mujahideen’s rule in Kabul, Fahim arrested and tortured Karzai, whom he suspected of spying for Pakistan. Nevertheless, fifteen years later, ahead of the 2009 elections, Fahim cast his lot with Karzai because Karzai was the strong horse.

Does Afghanistan Have an Alternative to the United States?

Is it realistic to believe that other powers could fill the vacuum left behind by a premature U.S. withdrawal? Yes. Schlesinger asks, “Where, for example, would Karzai find another nation willing to expend billions of dollars and the lives of its soldiers on behalf of Afghanistan?” Certainly both Iran and Pakistan would, and India could. Indeed, this is why Karzai is so willing to call President Obama’s bluff.

Granted, neither Iran nor Pakistan operates in the same manner as the Americans, but to assume that the American model of occupation and influence is the only one is naive. Other strategies do not require the same expense. In 2007, the Iranian government gave $564 million in credits to Afghanistan, half of which were grants. What Tehran calls grants, however, others might see as bribes. When the U.S. government provides aid, the bulk is absorbed into security costs and administrative overhead. What little makes into the field is subject to rigorous accountability, as every inspector-general report makes clear. The Iranian and Pakistani governments need not worry about transparency and so can maximize political influence. It is no coincidence that after Operation Enduring Freedom, the Islamic Republic dispatched Hassan Kazemi Qomi—its chief liaison to Lebanese Hezbollah and its future ambassador to Iraq—to head up Iran’s relief efforts in Afghanistan. That Qomi hails from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s elite Qods Force suggests Tehran’s intentions were and are not altruistic.

Pakistan is more likely to fill the vacuum. In Washington, internationalists often speak of the importance of multilateralism and the international legitimacy it brings, but they seldom acknowledge the downside to multilateralism: the need to accommodate partners’ interests. In Afghanistan today, NATO is dysfunctional because every member’s parliament has imposed caveats on the use of its forces. Pakistan also has caveats. The Pushtunistan crisis of the 1950s and 1960s and the trauma of Bangladeshi succession in 1971 have led Islamabad to conclude that ethno-nationalism is a greater threat to Pakistan’s existence than radical Islam. Simply put, Pakistan is an artificial country that lives in the knowledge that its constituent ethnicities may want to go their own separate ways. Islamabad knows that Pakistan hosts 28 million Pushtun who resent Punjabi domination and would gladly accept revision of the Durand Line that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to enable their inclusion into a strong Afghanistan.

Since the days of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (r. 1978–1988), Pakistani leaders have embraced Islamization. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia linked Pakistani cooperation with the United States with Washington’s acquiescence to a Pakistani monopoly over a distribution of aid. Pakistan distributed funding and weaponry only to the “Peshawar Seven” Mujahideen commanders, who prioritized a conservative Islamist outlook over Afghan nationalism. For the same reasons, Pakistani officials provided logistical and material support to the Taliban upon that group’s rise. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, General Pervez Musharraf still sought to intervene with Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell with regard to the so-called “moderate Taliban.”

Certainly Pakistan pays a huge price for its support of radical Islamist movements—last spring’s Pakistani offensive in the Swat Valley underlined that. But Pakistan’s continued support for radical Islamism as an antidote to ethnic nationalism also proves that it is willing to pay an extraordinarily high price to assert its interests and neutralize what many in Islamabad believe to be an existential threat. For Washington, however, increased radical Islamist influence in Afghanistan would defeat the very purpose of invading Afghanistan in the first place. The last nine years of sacrifice of blood and treasure would have been for naught.

Needed: An Act of Simple Realism

While U.S. inroads against the Taliban are welcome, they will be temporary if Afghan villagers, the Taliban, and the Taliban’s backers believe that U.S. commitment will begin to evaporate in July 2011. Schlesinger should not ignore insurgent statements or dismiss debates that occur on Afghan or Pakistani television. The voices of other players in the sandbox matter; indeed, they reflect external thinking and in some cases help shape responses. The White House may see dialogue as a means of conflict resolution, for example, but the Taliban may see it as an asymmetric warfare strategy designed to lull naive Westerners into complacency.

Washington navel-gazing and projection have no place in foreign policy realism. What matters in the real world is not how Schlesinger parses President Obama’s deliberately inexact words but rather how the Taliban in the mountains along the Durand Line, Pakistani officers in Islamabad, and Afghan officials in Kabul interpret Obama’s remarks against the backdrop of their own history: as another Western abandonment of Afghanistan.