Thinking through US strategy
Published in Gulf News, 23 September 2009
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Several months ago I met a media specialist working for one of Washington's many military contractors. This man's company had just been hired to help the US Army with information operations in Afghanistan. He wanted to talk to me about Iraq (where I have spent a lot of time) because, he said, the army sensed that Afghanistan was very different from Iraq. His company was trying to put together a conference where various experts could talk through the differences.
I left that conversation with mixed feelings. The US military's willingness to subject its strategy, tactics and conduct to relentless scrutiny and analysis is, in all respects, admirable. We all make mistakes. Too few of us take time to think through why our mistakes happened in an effort to keep them from happening again.
On the other hand, the whole conversation begged the question: why, after nearly eight years in Afghanistan, does the army need to hire consultants to tell them the country is very different from Iraq? Especially when one considers that the American military has been in Afghanistan 18 months longer than it has been in Iraq.
Viewed that way, the conversation was a bit depressing.
This came to mind as I watched US President Barack Obama make the rounds of America's Sunday morning news shows.
"When we came in, basically, there'd been drift in our Afghan strategy," he said (quotes here are from Obama's interview with ABC, but the phrasing was more-or-less identical in all five appearances he made on Sunday morning).
Noting that he had ordered "a top-to-bottom review" of Afghan policy, Obama went on to say his goal was "to refocus on why we're there".
"We're there because Al Qaida killed 3,000 Americans and we cannot allow extremists who want to do violence to the United States to be able to operate with impunity."
The president expressed scepticism about sending any more troops, but hastened to add that his new commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, "has done his own assessment".
That assessment has not yet been made public, but it has been widely reported that the general is preparing to ask the president for yet more troops. Obama, however, spent last Sunday signalling that he has doubts about any such request.
"We're going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy," he said, adding: "You don't make decisions about resources before you have the strategy right".
It was an almost offhand remark at the end of a long answer. Yet it was also quite telling.
Eight years on, America remains deeply uncertain about what, exactly, it is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. There is still a broad consensus that hunting down Al Qaida justifies a continued American presence, but national leaders also talk about preventing the terror group's resurgence. That second goal is likely to require a broad restructuring of Afghan society and it is much less certain that Americans in general and Democrats in particular can muster much enthusiasm for the task.
Last year, a central premise of the Obama presidential campaign was that Afghanistan was a good and necessary war in contrast to the bad and unnecessary mess of Iraq.
Thoughtful observers always knew that a clean exit from Iraq would be easier said than done. What has surprised many, however, is the complexity of ramping up in Afghanistan. If winning 'the good war' means the US, aided by the ever-more-obviously-flawed Hamid Karzai, must remake the whole of Afghan society, is that goal really achievable, affordable or desirable? And if something less than a wholesale restructuring of the country's social DNA means Al Qaida and the Taliban are likely to return to power, what has the international community been doing in Afghanistan for close to a decade?
The media focus here in America has been on numbers: are we sending more troops to Afghanistan and, if so, how many?
Too few people have been asking the question Obama floated on Sunday morning: what, exactly, are all those soldiers (and their accompanying contractors) there to do? Only when that question is answered can we begin to figure out how many of them really need to be there in the first place.
Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.