Obama's Grand Strategy - Afghanistan Plus

President Obama aims to exert sufficient military effort to create conditions for transition. This means a dominance over the Taliban - unable to reemerge when transition takes place - together with space and capacity to train and grow the Afghan military and police security forces.

By Michael Codner, Director, Military Sciences Department, RUSI

President Obama's speech at Westpoint on 1 December 2009, elegant in its style and delivery as we have come to expect, was also remarkably comprehensive. It went far beyond a statement, and in some aspects restatement, of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan and announcement of a surge in troop levels. It will be no accident that he chose West Point to present a grand strategy that systematically replaced all the tenets of the 'neoconservative' ideology of the previous Administration that Bush affirmed in his speech of 1 June 2002 at the same place. Instead of a unilateralist vision that emphasised the primacy of the military instrument in pre-emptive operations abroad, Obama spoke of the importance of strengthening international institutions, of partnerships with friends and allies and with nations in regions of crisis towards common ends as the route to the security of the American nation. And he spoke of the historical continuity of America's record in this moral approach since the foundation of the nation with reference to both Eisenhower and F. D. Roosevelt. 

He had the difficult challenge of speaking first to his own nation but in doing so in sending the right messages to the government of Afghanistan, to the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida, to Allies and other military contributors to the intervention, and to the world at large. To that end it will be important that subsequent rhetoric from the White House, officials and senior commanders -- and allies - will develop issues such as timelines for draw-down with all of these actors in mind.

Troop Numbers

The three elements of his grand strategy for the region are, first, a 'military effort to create the conditions for a transition' of responsibility for security to the government of Afghanistan and its own military and police security forces (which will be the focus of this analysis). Secondly, he proposed 'a civilian surge' to reinforce progress in developing Afghan security; and, thirdly, an effective partnership with Pakistan.

It was expected that Obama would announce an increase in 30,000 US troops to begin in early 2010. This number is somewhat less than the 40,000 asked for by General McChrystal, Commander of both NATO and US forces, in his assessment of 30 August 2009. However, Obama expects other nations to increase troop levels and the additional 10,000 is feasible. The Secretary General , Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has spoken of  'at least 5,000 ... and possibly a few more thousand on top of it'. In the United Kingdom Brown has announced an additional 500 taking the UK total to 10,000 including the 500 Special Forces and their enablers already in theatre that he has revealed. The German government has indicated an additional 3,000 and leadership of this sort by the larger European nations could prompt smaller nations to bolster their stakes in the 'strategic bargain'. There is of course the problem of some nations' plans to withdraw forces, Canada and the Netherlands in particular bearing in mind that they have been prepared to contribute to the more violent southern provinces. And it bears mention that the US contribution which will reach 100,000 will be no more than the Soviet presence at the height of its occupation of Afghanistan which resulted in failure.

Of course troop numbers alone are not the answer to the problem as the Obama and McChrystal grand and military strategies acknowledge. There must be a surge in the civilian contribution. But 'boots on the ground' are a sine qua non in the perceptions of the Afghan people and Taliban antagonists; this is so in delivering the essential military missions that will enable civilian development and also in compensating in the short term for inadequacies in delivering civilian functions where threat levels restrict their mobility or where they have for other reasons been unfocused.

Indeed the total US and ISAF military presence will begin to approach some historical levels that have delivered progress for instance in the Malayan emergency of the 1950s.(It is na├»ve to draw lessons for counter-insurgency wholesale from history but illustrative benchmarks cannot be ignored when a counter-insurgency operation has been so  patently under-resourced).

In particular, armed forces must in the short term reverse the momentum of the Taliban in controlling territory and delivering ad hoc government. They must dominate further attempts at escalation while the Afghan military and police security forces can be grown and trained to the levels that Obama has demanded of President Karzai in his speech of March 2009. And quality of Afghan security forces is every bit as important as quantity.

Refocusing alliances

Obama did not announce the detail of the composition of the 30,000 new US troops. However it is understood that the large proportion will be land combat forces, engineers and aviation. In particular US Marines will be deployed to Helmand alongside British forces in this particularly problematic province. What the command arrangements and precise missions will be are not yet known. However there is a clear pattern of greater integration between US and British forces which indicates more emphasis on US rather than NATO leadership in Afghanistan with the UK in a strong supporting role. The UK now provides the Commander of Regional Command (RC) South and with the Deputy Commander of ISAF as well as a senior retired general, Graeme Lamb, as adviser to McChrystal.

Strong strategic leadership and direction which NATO is not well disposed to provide will be essential to progress. It is likely that Afghanistan will be seen increasingly as a US operation with multinational support through the NATO model rather than a NATO 'out of area' operation which will test the purpose and utility of the Alliance for the future.

Challenges to the strategy

From a military viewpoint there are four problems that the Obama strategy presents. The first, needless to say, is whether the force levels are enough to turn the tide against the Taliban and win McChrystal's 'short fight' by July 2011 when Obama has announced that withdrawal of US forces will begin assuming transition and transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces take effect.

Secondly this very issue of a stated date for drawdown of July 2011 could play into the hands of Al-Qa'ida and the Taliban allowing them to wait their time before returning to the offensive. It is a common feature of insurgencies that they pursue strategies of cumulative effect over time with prolongation as a principal device to wear down the patience of democracies. A challenge for counter-insurgency is to be able to sequence and measure progress without talking up 'exit strategies' and timelines which can be used to demonstrate failure.  Importantly Obama stated in his speech that the July 2011 date would take 'into account conditions on the ground'. And it is this condition about the conditions at the time which must be reinforced by subsequent rhetoric and actions across the coalition but by the US in particular. If adequate levels of progress in achieving the transfer of security to Afghan security forces have not been achieved by July 2010, the drawdown should not begin. This is not an easy message to present to the Taliban because the expectations of Western electorates must also be fed.

Thirdly there is the matter of Karzai's commitment to change - to deal with corruption and criminality and to expand and improve Afghan security forces. And this uncertainty exposes the paradox of timelines. Unless he and his government have timelines to face, there is every possibility of a pattern and culture of dependency on the US and international support. There are examples of this challenge in Bosnia and Sierra Leone. There are roles for military intervention forces in addressing corruption, in particular in providing intelligence, in training and mentoring of Afghan security forces and in compensating and substituting for these Afghan forces in the short term. Also they must not be perceived to be complicit in corruption either in bargains struck with corrupt warlords or aggressor Taliban or in using local logistic services in ways that connive in and stimulate corruption and criminality. Of course military counter-corruption activity requires resources and will stretch multinational forces in the short term when the priority should be reversing Taliban momentum and regaining military control.

The Battle of Kandahar?

A particular problem in RC South is Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan and the Pushtun capital, where the Taliban have been particularly effective in gaining control. Clearly this will be a priority for US reinforcements bearing in mind the probable withdrawal of Canadian forces who currently have responsibility. One option might be a full scale attack along the lines of the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Decisive events of this kind can be very effective in reversing enemy momentum and convincing local populations of progress. However there could be large numbers of civilian casualties which could send the opposite message of an unwelcome victor and weaken support for the US in Europe and globally. Other options might be a more incremental approach with the accompanying challenge of the July 2011 timeline - or limiting of Taliban influence in the city and isolation from the surrounding region if this is realistic and feasible.

The UK dividend

For the United Kingdom additional US troops in Helmand, and US Marines to boot, will be an absolute boon. Greater integration between the forces with less emphasis on national regional responsibility could allow British forces to deliver results that are within their capacity routinely and to make good use of US capability, as one should in a well-integrated coalition operation, without the stigma of inadequacy. Most importantly for the Prime Minister, he can present the British mission in Afghanistan to the British public as one of supporting the US as its closest ally in its purpose of completing its task begun in 2001 of removing Al-Qa'ida from the region. The UK made its bilateral commitment in that year in the context of NATO's Article V undertaking to support an Ally who had been viciously attacked. The US was distracted from its purpose by Iraq and the UK backfilled in 2006 nobly but inadvisedly in the circumstances bearing in mind its own extraordinary commitment to Iraq. Obama has now presented a grand strategy for global security which the British electorate and all the major political parties should be able to endorse heartily as that of the America the nation has supported and fought alongside throughout the last century. For the UK the present War is not first and foremost about keeping terrorism out of Britain but of supporting Obama's America in finishing its business -- something that should now be rather easier to explain.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

 See also

Michael Clarke on Channel 4 NewsAssessing troop numbers in Afghanistan
What General McChrystal asked for was five more brigades - five more brigades that he can use in Kandahar, in Helmand, a couple in the north east and a training brigade. So if he gets those five brigades then he's got backing for his plan whatever the final number turns out to be.



Afghan lead item RIGHT IMAGEAvoiding the same mistakes: the international strategy for Afghanistan
By Professor Michael Clarke
As President Obama announces his plans for Afghanistan, there is palpable consensus within the international community that the whole enterprise is now staring strategic defeat in the face. The next eighteen months represents the last good opportunity to put right the neglect and the mistakes of the last eight years and avert a worse crisis for us all.
ANP thumbnailRUSI report outlines plan to beat corruption in the Afghan National Police
25 Nov 2009
The international community must abandon an 'obsession' with quantity over quality in order to combat corruption within the ranks of the Afghan National Police, according to a report published by the Royal United Services Institute.



Michael Codner

Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

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