Will Obama stake all on Afghanistan?
This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
After U.S. airstrikes killed scores of civilians in western
Afghanistan this past week, White House National Security Adviser Gen.
James L. Jones said the United States would continue with the
airstrikes and would not tie the hands of U.S. generals fighting in
Afghanistan. At the same time, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David
Petraeus has cautioned against using tactics that undermine strategic
U.S. goals in Afghanistan — raising the question of what exactly are
the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan. A debate inside the U.S. camp has emerged over this very question, the outcome of which is likely to determine the future of the region.
On one side are President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert
Gates and a substantial amount of the U.S. Army leadership. On the
other side are Petraeus — the architect of U.S. strategy in Iraq after
2006 — and his staff and supporters. An Army general — even one with
four stars — is unlikely to overcome a president and a defense
secretary; even the five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur couldn’t pull that
off. But the Afghan debate is important, and it provides us with a
sense of future U.S. strategy in the region.
Petraeus and U.S. Strategy in Iraq
Petraeus took over effective command
of coalition forces in Iraq in 2006. Two things framed his strategy.
One was the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm congressional
elections, which many saw as a referendum on the Iraq war. The second
was the report by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of elder
statesmen (including Gates) that recommended some fundamental changes
in how the war was fought.
The expectation in November 2006 was that as U.S. President George
W. Bush’s strategy had been repudiated, his only option was to begin
withdrawing troops. Even if Bush didn’t begin this process, it was
expected that his successor in two years certainly would have to do so.
The situation was out of control, and U.S. forces did not seem able to
assert control. The goals of the 2003 invasion, which were to create a
pro-American regime in Baghdad, redefine the political order of Iraq
and use Iraq as a base of operations against hostile regimes in the
region, were unattainable. It did not seem possible to create any
coherent regime in Baghdad at all, given that a complex civil war was
under way that the United States did not seem able to contain.
Most important, groups in Iraq believed that the United States would
be leaving. Therefore, political alliance with the United States made
no sense, as U.S. guarantees would be made moot by withdrawal. The
expectation of an American withdrawal sapped U.S. political influence,
while the breadth of the civil war and its complexity exhausted the
U.S. Army. Defeat had been psychologically locked in.
Bush’s decision to launch a surge of forces in Iraq was less a
military event than a psychological one. Militarily, the quantity of
forces to be inserted — some 30,000 on top of a force of 120,000 — did
not change the basic metrics of war in a country of about 29 million.
Moreover, the insertion of additional troops was far from a surge; they
trickled in over many months. Psychologically, however, it was
stunning. Rather than commence withdrawals as so many expected, the
United States was actually increasing its forces. The issue was not
whether the United States could defeat all of the insurgents and
militias; that was not possible. The issue was that because the United
States was not leaving, the United States was not irrelevant. If the
United States was not irrelevant, then at least some American
guarantees could have meaning. And that made the United States a
political actor in Iraq.
the redeployment of some troops with an active political program. At
the heart of this program was reaching out to the Sunni insurgents, who
had been among the most violent opponents of the United States during
2003-2006. The Sunni insurgents represented the traditional leadership
of the mainstream Sunni tribes, clans and villages. The U.S. policy of
stripping the Sunnis of all power in 2003 and apparently leaving a
vacuum to be filled by the Shia had left the Sunnis in a desperate
situation, and they had moved to resistance as guerrillas.
actually were trapped by three forces. First, there were the Americans,
always pressing on the Sunnis even if they could not crush them.
Second, there were the militias of the Shia, a group that the Sunni
Saddam Hussein had repressed and that now was suspicious of all Sunnis.
Third, there were the jihadists, a foreign legion of Sunni fighters
drawn to Iraq under the banner of al Qaeda. In many ways, the jihadists
posed the greatest threat to the mainstream Sunnis, since they wanted
to seize leadership of the Sunni communities and radicalize them.
U.S. policy under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been
unbending hostility to the Sunni insurgency. The policy under Gates and
Petraeus after 2006 — and it must be understood that they developed
this strategy jointly — was to offer the Sunnis a way out of their
three-pronged trap. Because the United States would be staying in Iraq,
it could offer the Sunnis protection against both the jihadists and the
Shia. And because the surge convinced the Sunnis that the United States
was not going to withdraw, they took the deal. Petraeus’ great
achievement was presiding over the U.S.-Sunni negotiations and eventual
understanding, and then using that to pressure the Shiite militias with
the implicit threat of a U.S.-Sunni entente. The Shia subsequently and
painfully shifted their position to accepting a coalition government,
the mainstream Sunnis helped break the back of the jihadists and the
civil war subsided, allowing the United States to stage a withdrawal
under much more favorable circumstances.
This was a much better outcome than most would have thought possible
in 2006. It was, however, an outcome that fell far short of American
strategic goals of 2003. The current government in Baghdad is far from
pro-American and is unlikely to be an ally of the United States;
keeping it from becoming an Iranian tool would be the best outcome for
the United States at this point. The United States certainly is not
about to reshape Iraqi society, and Iraq is not likely to be a
long-term base for U.S. offensive operations in the region.
Gates and Petraeus produced what was likely the best possible outcome under the circumstances. They created the framework for a U.S. withdrawal
in a context other than a chaotic civil war, they created a coalition
government, and they appear to have blocked Iranian influence in Iraq.
But these achievements remain uncertain. The civil war could resume.
The coalition government might collapse. The Iranians might become the
dominant force in Baghdad. But these unknowns are enormously better
than the outcomes expected in 2006. At the same time, snatching
uncertainty from the jaws of defeat is not the same as victory.
Afghanistan and Lessons from Iraq
Petraeus is arguing that the strategy pursued in Iraq should be used
as a blueprint in Afghanistan, and it appears that Obama and Gates have
raised a number of important questions in response. Is the Iraqi
solution really so desirable? If it is desirable, can it be replicated
in Afghanistan? What level of U.S. commitment would be required in
Afghanistan, and what would this cost in terms of vulnerabilities
elsewhere in the world? And finally, what exactly is the U.S. goal in
In Iraq, Gates and Petraeus sought to create a coalition government
that, regardless of its nature, would facilitate a U.S. withdrawal.
Obama and Gates have stated that the goal in Afghanistan is the defeat
of al Qaeda and the denial of bases for the group in Afghanistan. This
is a very different strategic goal than in Iraq, because this goal does
not require a coalition government or a reconciliation of political
elements. Rather, it requires an agreement with one entity: the
Taliban. If the Taliban agree to block al Qaeda operations in
Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal. Therefore,
the challenge in Afghanistan is using U.S. power to give the Taliban
what they want — a return to power — in exchange for a settlement on
the al Qaeda question.
In Iraq, the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds all held genuine political and
military power. In Afghanistan, the Americans and the Taliban have this
power, though many other players have derivative power from the United
States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki; where al-Maliki had his own substantial political base,
Karzai is someone the Americans invented to become a focus for power in
the future. But the future has not come. The complexities of Iraq made
a coalition government possible there, but in many ways, Afghanistan is both simpler and more complex. The country has a multiplicity of groups, but in the end only one insurgency that counts.
Petraeus argues that the U.S. strategic goal — blocking al Qaeda in Afghanistan — cannot be achieved simply through an agreement with the Taliban.
In this view, the Taliban are not nearly as divided as some argue, and
therefore their factions cannot be played against each other. Moreover,
the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep their word even if they give it,
which is not likely.
From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that
existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan
psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying,
thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama
and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that
Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in
Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager
to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the
Gates and Obama have pointed out that there is a factor in
Afghanistan for which there was no parallel in Iraq — namely, Pakistan.
While Iran was a factor in the Iraqi civil war, the Taliban are as much a Pakistani phenomenon as an Afghan one,
and the Pakistanis are neither willing nor able to deny the Taliban
sanctuary and lines of supply. So long as Pakistan is in the condition
it is in — and Pakistan likely will stay that way for a long time — the Taliban have time on their side and no
reason to split, and are likely to negotiate only on their terms.
There is also a military fear. Petraeus brought U.S. troops closer
to the population in Iraq, and he is doing this in Afghanistan as well.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deployed in firebases. These relatively
isolated positions are vulnerable to massed Taliban forces. U.S.
airpower can destroy these concentrations, so long as they are detected
in time and attacked before they close in on the firebases. Ominously
for the United States, the Taliban do not seem to have committed
anywhere near the majority of their forces to the campaign.
This military concern is combined with real questions about the
endgame. Gates and Obama are not convinced that the endgame in Iraq,
perhaps the best outcome that was possible there, is actually all that
desirable for Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, this outcome would leave the
Taliban in power in the end. No amount of U.S. troops could match the
Taliban’s superior intelligence capability, their knowledge of the
countryside and their willingness to take casualties in pursuing their
ends, and every Afghan security force would be filled with Taliban
And there is a deeper issue yet that Gates has referred to: the
Russian experience in Afghanistan. The Petraeus camp is vehement that
there is no parallel between the Russian and American experience; in
this view, the Russians tried to crush the insurgents, while the
Americans are trying to win them over and end the insurgency by
convincing the Taliban’s supporters and reaching a political
accommodation with their leaders. Obama and Gates are less sanguine
about the distinction — such distinctions were made in Vietnam in
response to the question of why the United States would fare better in
Southeast Asia than the French did. From the Obama and Gates point of
view, a political settlement would call for either a constellation of
forces in Afghanistan favoring some accommodation with the Americans,
or sufficient American power to compel accommodation. But it is not
clear to Obama and Gates that either could exist in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Petraeus is charging that Obama and Gates are missing
the chance to repeat what was done in Iraq, while Obama and Gates are
afraid Petraeus is confusing success in Iraq with a universal
counterinsurgency model. To put it differently, they feel that while
Petraeus benefited from fortuitous circumstances in Iraq, he quickly
could find himself hopelessly bogged down in Afghanistan. The Pentagon
on May 11 announced that U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David
McKiernan would be replaced, less than a year after he took over, with
Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal. McKiernan’s removal could pave the way for a
broader reshuffling of Afghan strategy by the Obama administration.
The most important issues concern the extent to which Obama wants to
stake his presidency on Petraeus’ vision in Afghanistan, and how
important Afghanistan is to U.S. grand strategy. Petraeus has conceded
that al Qaeda is in Pakistan. Getting the group out of Pakistan
requires surgical strikes. Occupation and regime change in Pakistan are
way beyond American abilities. The question of what the United States
expects to win in Afghanistan — assuming it can win anything there —
In the end, there is never a debate between U.S. presidents and
generals. Even MacArthur discovered that. It is becoming clear that
Obama is not going to bet all in Afghanistan, and that he sees
Afghanistan as not worth the fight. Petraeus is a soldier in a fight,
and he wants to win. But in the end, as Clausewitz said, war is an
extension of politics by other means. As such, generals tend to not get
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