Streetwise Professor

December 30, 2009

Sent to Afghanistan Without a Map

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:12 pm

The foundation of any military plan or strategy is The Objective.  All details of implementation are directed towards achieving it.  Any strategy that lacks a clear objective as its foundation runs extreme risks, and is likely to result in confusion, and work at cross purposes by those in charge of developing and implementing it.  If you don’t have an objective, you’re never going to achieve it.  And if you do have an objective, but don’t spell it out, you can’t count on anybody devising or implementing a strategy to achieve it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Obama Afghanistan strategy suffers from this fundamental defect.  But don’t believe me.  Believe that right wing rag, the Washington Post.  In an article conveniently (for the administration) buried on the Saturday after Christmas, and overshadowed by the junkbomber fiasco, the Post paints a devastating picture of strategic confusion traceable directly to Obama’s complete failure to state unambiguously his objective:

Nearly a month after Obama unveiled his revised Afghanistan strategy, military and civilian leaders have come away with differing views of several fundamental aspects of the president’s new approach, according to more than a dozen senior administration and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Members of Obama’s war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

. . . .

The president avoided details in his Dec. 1 address, leaving it up to members of his Cabinet and to his advisers to explain the specifics. The result has been a wide divergence of expectations. Gates, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the Sunday after the speech, said that perhaps only “some handful or some small number” would be withdrawn. Biden, during his MSNBC appearance last week, said a chart showing an increase in U.S. deployments this year would be “coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

The ambiguity over the meaning of the July 2011 deadline has generated uncertainty over the president’s intent. “Is the surge a way of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win support for the surge?” asked a senior Democratic staff member in Congress. “Which is the strategy and which is the head-fake? Nobody knows.”

One senior military officer in Afghanistan said he and his fellow soldiers “don’t know if this is all over in 18 months, or whether this is just a progress report that leads to minor changes.”

“Until they tell us otherwise,” the officer said, “we’re operating as if the latter is the policy.”

A ‘dramatic change’?
Although senior-level civilians in the administration emerged from the review process thinking the mission had been circumscribed, senior military officials continue to have a different view. The result, as they see it, is that the White House has embraced McChrystal’s original plan.

“We had already been pretty focused that we wouldn’t try to clear and hold things more than we needed to,” said a senior commander involved in the war. “It wasn’t a dramatic change by any means.”

White House officials have cited a meeting among NSC staff members and McChrystal in which the general displayed a slide stating that his mission was to “Defeat the Taliban,” which some civilians deemed overly ambitious because it suggested that every last member of the Taliban would have to be killed or captured. The officials said the mission was redefined to avoid the term.

But to military officers, defeat “doesn’t mean wipe everyone out,” the commander said. “It means after Waterloo, Napoleon still had an army but he wasn’t going to threaten Europe. We used that view when we worked defeat.”

Even before the White House review had finished, the commander in charge of day-to-day operations, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, had developed a plan to concentrate U.S. and NATO efforts in 80 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.

“They’re taking credit for some of the things that McChrystal was already doing and calling it a narrowed focus,” a senior military official said.

White House advisers maintain that the review process did refine the mission beyond what McChrystal had proposed over the summer.

“There was a real narrowing here,” the senior administration official said. “Stan has a big leadership task to adapt his original concept to the new strategic guidance.” [It really bugs me when anonymous officials refer to Gen. McChrystal as “Stan.”  That is really patronizing–it speaks volumes.]

This part is particularly amazing:

Terms such as “winning” and “victory” have been eschewed by the White House. Obama did not use either in his Dec. 1 address, and he said in an interview earlier this year that he was uncomfortable using the term “victory” when fighting “a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda.”

But when Gates visited Kabul a week after Obama’s speech, he made a point of telling military personnel there that “we are in this thing to win.”

“From a moral perspective, when you ask soldiers and families to sacrifice, we do that to win,” the Pentagon official said. “We need to be able to articulate winning.”

Damn right.  Defining “winning” is another way of establishing the objective: after all, “winning” means “achieving the objective.”  If you don’t define winning, how the hell can you devise a strategy to win?  And how can you pretend you have a strategy to achieve something, when you haven’t said what that something is?

The primary job of the commander in chief is to identify the nation’s interests and specify strategic objectives intended to advance those interests.  The Post piece makes it clear that Obama is failing in that task.  Failing completely.  His seeming allergy to the very idea of victory will be self-fulfilling, because by refusing to identify an objective (i.e., what would victory look like?) he will ensure that victory by any measure is virtually impossible.

Obama’s mistake here is so fundamental, and so obvious on even common sense terms, that I struggle for an explanation.  Does he believe that if he sets no verifiable definition of victory, he can avoid accountability if that objective is not achieved?  That is, is this just political trimming, the ordinary ambiguity that politicians exploit to avoid responsibility for failure?  Or is it that he, Hamlet like, could not come to a decision on the objective in Afghanistan, but the political pressure to do something became irresistable, so he announced a half-baked strategy?  Either alternative is frightening, and a grave failure of responsibility to those who are being sent to risk their lives in Afghanistan (figuratively) without a map.

Other alternatives come to mind, but those are even more damning, so I shrink from listing them.

What else could it be?  I am open to suggestions.

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  1. “Other alternatives come to mind, but those are even more damning, so I shrink from listing them.”

    Much venom for those trying to retrieve the situation. Not a word, ever, about those who brought the situation about.

    Yup, SWP’s a political hack.

    Comment by rkka — January 1, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  2. SWP’s criticisms of Obama over Afghanistan started prior to Election Day 2008. At that time, the policy that was losing the war in Afghanistan was being made by George Dubya Bush. At no time did SWP breathe a word of criticism of the policy that was *losing the Afghan war*.

    This makes it very clear that SWP cares not whether the Afghan war is being won or lost. He cares only about criticising Obama.

    It’s Obama’s presidency now.

    As to football, “rebuilding years” are common. I’d like to know what a strategy or playbook for Afghanistan looks like, other than getting out as quickly as possible.

    And when someone outlines to me a policy course that, starting where Russia was in 1999, would have prepared Russia better for a *global financial collapse* in less than ten years better than the one Putin followed, I’ll shut up about the 1990s.

    Comment by rkka — January 1, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

  3. “And when someone outlines to me a policy course that, starting where Russia was in 1999, would have prepared Russia better for a *global financial collapse* in less than ten years better than the one Putin followed, I’ll shut up about the 1990s.”

    As I thought, youse guys really have no response.

    Looks like y’all admit that Putin’s course from 1999 was about the best available. It’s good to see that despite our differences, we can agree on something!

    Comment by rkka — January 4, 2010 @ 6:20 am

  4. […] the Streetwise Professor, Craig Pirrong comments on an article in WaPo about lack of communication regarding the Afghanistan strategy. The […]

    Pingback by Pickerhead :: Pickings from the Webvine ::January 5, 2009 — December 4, 2011 @ 6:10 am

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