Obama’s Escalation of the Afghan War Comes Under Fire

President Barack Obama talks with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan during a phone call from the Oval Office, Nov. 2, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza.) Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently called for the United States to leave Afghanistan. While history may prove Haass’ opinion right, his rational for a US withdrawal is flawed.

Haass’ makes his case in a Newsweek article entitled: “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It.” He agrees with Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele’s early-July remarks in which Steele referred to Afghanistan as “a war of Obama’s choosing.” (The Republican Party repudiated Steele’s comments shortly after they were made.)

Haass does not dispute President Bush’s decision to remove the Taliban government from Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks. His beef is with President Obama’s escalation of the war. Haass writes that the war in Afghanistan today “is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration.”

Haass insists that President Obama strayed from the proper course in Afghanistan when he equated the return of the Taliban “with the return of al Qaeda,” and as Haas states, “the United States became a full protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war, supporting a weak and corrupt central government against the Taliban.”

To be sure, President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan. When President Bush left office there were about 30,000 US troops in Afghanistan, but by the end of the summer of 2010 there will be nearly 100,000. Obama also began an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign, known by the acronym COIN, which was effective at ending Iraq’s insurgency. COIN by design requires additional US soldiers and resources.

COIN redeploys US troops from distant outposts and border regions, which was a key element to Bush’s Afghanistan strategy, to population centers such as towns and villages. COIN seeks to protect the Afghan people so that they will not fear retaliation from the Taliban-led insurgents.

The assumption in COIN is that many Afghans would like to support the Afghan government if their protection could be guaranteed. Commensurate with population protection, COIN calls for robust US material and logistical support for local Afghan governments so that they can provide services to win Afghan hearts and minds.

In addition to troop increases and a major strategy change, and regardless of public statements to the contrary, the US government is intimately involved in building up the Afghan state, or developing its institutions and their ability to deliver services such as security, water, electricity, education, and others.

Most Americans probably agree with the limited kind of state building that occurs at the hands of diplomats such as helping Afghan leaders set up their government branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) and the respective ministries, as well as helping to formulate a constitution and other government laws. These robust diplomatic initiatives began during President Bush’s administration. They certainly belong to the category of state building.

Many Americans would probably not have a problem with a limited number of US military and government personnel (a few hundred, a thousand?) training Afghan army and police forces. Deeper commitments raise questions of the financial costs involved, which are paid with US tax dollars, and the typical Americans preference for letting other peoples run their own lives.

Therefore, fewer Americans would agree to US military and other government personnel actively rebuilding Afghan infrastructure and providing services but this is in fact what the US is doing in Afghanistan today. It is doing it directly and in conjunction with Afghans, non-government organizations (NGOs), and government organizations from other countries. However, it must be noted that this latter kind of “advanced” state building, for the purposes of this article, began during the Bush administration. Moreover, President Bush increased US troop levels repeatedly.

In 2001, Haass was Director for Policy Planning at the State Department working under then Secretary of State Colin Powell. President Bush also made Haas the coordinator for the US government’s efforts in Afghanistan. Haass’ participation in National Security Council meetings enabled him to know each of President Bush’s cabinet members’ positions on Afghanistan.

Haass explains that Bush officials did not view Afghanistan as a location of US interests primarily because of that county’s dysfunctional security situation. Afghanistan is of course extremely important to its neighbors, which see it as an oil, natural gas, and trade corridor as well as a buffer state with security implications.

Haass writes that he was the only one in the Bush administration arguing for a modest US military presence in Afghanistan, or about 25,000 to 30,000 US soldiers (with NATO matching these numbers), once the Taliban government was overthrown. The troops hopefully would provide just enough security to help a fledgling Afghan government take root. Haas states accurately that the other top Bush officials were against any state building efforts in Afghanistan. They preferred instead a “light footprint” strategy.

However, the Bush administration reversed course and significantly escalated US involvement in Afghanistan, particularly from December 2002 due to the declining security situation. President Bush’s escalation of the Afghan war is important to highlight because the foundation of Haass’ argument is that one, Bush barely did anything in Afghanistan because he believed it to be a strategically unimportant country, and two, this limited involvement was the correct approach. For Haass, Obama is in error because he is doing too much.

Bush’s limited appreciation for Afghanistan is well established but this fact is irrelevant to his escalation of US efforts in Afghanistan because he did it nevertheless. The fact that both Bush and Obama were/are neck deep in state building efforts seems to undermine Haas’ argument, which is largely a philosophical one. That is to say that Haas argues against getting too involved in Afghanistan –as Obama is doing- but such a point was mooted already from December 2002 when President Bush involved the US in state building. Perhaps the question that Haass should be asking is “How much is too much?”

Larry Goodson, a noted Afghanistan expert and author, explained in his 2003 and 2004 Afghanistan status reports that from December 2001 when the Taliban was deposed, the Bush administration adopted a light footprint strategy for Afghanistan.

True to the imagery evoked by a light footprint, the US never had more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2002, and their primary mission was to seek out al Qaeda fighters and Osama bin Laden. It was not to assist in reconstruction and development projects. (American and other foreign diplomats, however, were at this time working to set up an interim government beginning with the Bonn Conference in December 2001.) The light footprint strategy was practical for the Bush administration because it could easily withdraw US forces from Afghanistan at any time without fear of the negative consequences that could result (the vacuum left behind) from a greater US commitment.

The UN mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) provided an additional 5,000 foreign troops but they were stationed only in Kabul. Goodson explains that the US had relied on Afghanistan’s notorious warlords to fill the security vacuum in the interior of the country after the fall of the Taliban. However, it soon became evident that warlord-backed internal security was not working.

To respond to the growing security threat, the Bush administration reversed policy in December 2002 by introducing Provincial Reconstruction Teams. PRTs are composed of military and civilian personnel joined together in a single team. They coordinate their efforts with numerous government and non-government organizations to provide needed services including infrastructure and engineering work. PRT projects help employ thousands of Afghans. Today, there are 26 PRTs and a single team can number many hundreds of people.

The establishment of the PRTs was the nail in the coffin of the light footprint strategy and the start of the reconstruction phase of state building, which was not initially planned by Bush administration. PRTs were part of a policy reversal of deeper US involvement. The PRT mission was completely different from hunting al Qaeda in the countryside.

PRTs were a deep footprint that sought to win Afghan hearts and minds through needed reconstruction projects. The thinking was that if Afghans appreciated PRT accomplishments then they might decide to support the Afghan government. It is not too far fetched to view PRTs as appendages of the Afghan government because they do what the ministries of the Afghan government ought to be doing if they were strong enough.

PRTs also set the precedent that the US would escalate its involvement in Afghanistan if the security situation warranted it. Their introduction indicated that President Bush would not permit the US to “lose” in Afghanistan regardless of that state’s strategic importance. The PRTs were the proverbial “step down the slippery slope”. What Haass said of Obama could now be said of Bush: “the United States became a full protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war.” Successive US troop escalations would follow.

(Incidentally, civilian-military integration, such as occurs in the PRTs, traces its origin to the Balkan crises of the 90s, and is a controversial issue in the NGO community. Peter Runge, with the Association of German Development NGOs, or VENRO, argues that PRTs create danger for aid workers because they become associated with the military and the US and UN political agenda. Taliban fighters might be inclined to view aid workers as instruments of foreign powers and the Kabul government, rather than as neutral parties merely interested in helping Afghans with no strings attached.)

Goodson notes that the snail’s pace development of the Afghan security forces coupled with the continued insecurity posed by warlords and the resurgence of the Taliban in 2003 led to US and ISAF troop escalations. UN Security Council Resolution 1510 was passed in October 2003 and authorized ISAF to provide for security outside of Kabul, or in Afghanistan’s interior, where a third of Afghan’s provinces were now high-risk areas. International aid workers were in danger and many reconstruction projects were threatened. US troop levels in Afghanistan steadily rose until they reached about 30,000 by the end of the Bush presidency in January 2009.

Why did President Bush involve the US government in state building in Afghanistan when he refused initially? The reason is because of the connection between a state’s government and its internal security. A weak government means that internal security forces (the army and police) will be incapable of keeping law and order let alone repelling an invader. A weak Afghan government cannot resist the Taliban-led insurgency.

What is the difference between Bush and Obama’s Afghanistan strategies? The biggest difference is probably that Obama has adopted the US effort there as his own and has proved this by significantly boosting resources and changing the military strategy. While Bush did escalate US involvement in Afghanistan, the work in Afghanistan was still under-resourced. For Bush, Iraq was the strategic priority and consequently it got the lion share of available US resources. It is not a coincidence that President Obama has been able to better resource the operation in Afghanistan as the US draws down in Iraq.

Since Afghanistan was under-resourced and undermanned during the Bush administration, Bush’s goal in Afghanistan was not to lose. In contrast, Obama is playing to win. Bush gets the long-term credit for success in Iraq, assuming that there is such success. In Iraq, Obama is more or less drawing down the US presence there. However, if Afghanistan succeeds, then Obama deserves the full credit for it.

In the end, there is more continuity between the Bush and Obama strategies in Afghanistan than Haass acknowledges. Nevertheless, Haass’ and Steele are right about one thing. Afghanistan is indeed Obama’s war. There can be no doubt that President Obama inherited a mess in Afghanistan, but once the ball was in his possession (from no more than the “10 yard line”) he ran down the field with it. Whether he will score no one knows but he has staked his foreign policy on it.