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Weekly Commentary — To Surge or Not to Surge

2009 December 2
by rahul

Well, Hamlet has finally made up his mind. After a major strategic review of Afghanistan, an equally major review of the review, and then several months of reviewing both reviews, he has finally committed himself to a course of action. Whether it involves his pretending to be insane or just treating the rest of us as if we are, next week he will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just after announcing a major military escalation.

Obama’s speeches have been variously criticized over the past few years for soaring rhetoric untethered to actual facts and circumstances and for dry wonkish attention to policy detail, so he cleverly arranged this time to satisfy all critics by having neither.

Indeed, if you set aside the increase of 30,000 troops, repeatedly telegraphed by the White House, there were only two things noteworthy in the speech — first, his completely unforced reiteration of the commitment to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011 and second, his bizarre new commitment to start withdrawing the troops he is now throwing into Afghanistan within 18 months.

What the latter means is very unclear. If it were Clinton or Bush, I would ignore it as verbiage, a mere hole in the air, but Obama does not throw away words and has an uncanny consistency between what he says and what he ends up doing — look at how he promised to escalate in Afghanistan while campaigning and has already doubled the U.S. troop presence since taking office.

I would guess the genesis of the promise is the growing pressure on him from Democrats in Congress. On Afghanistan, he is in the unenviable position of being dependent on the Republicans and at odds with his own party. Obama has tried to split the difference, thus pleasing nobody.

Still, being Obama, he no doubt had to convince himself that this commitment motivated by domestic political considerations is actually an important part of the optimal strategy in Afghanistan — presumably, his reasoning is that he is signaling to the U.S.-propped Afghan government and to Hamid Karzai that the U.S. commitment is far from open-ended. He is also, I imagine, trying to signal to himself that he is not Lyndon Johnson.

The truth, though, is that if you’re going to fight a counterinsurgency — and that is the course he has clearly put us on — this is a ridiculous way to do it. Why not just withdraw now? The chances that something climactic will happen in the next 18 months are minimal — and if it does, it will likely be something horrible. In Iraq, things came to a head within a very short time frame from 2005-2007 because of the descent into a nightmare of internecine carnage, followed by desperate attempts by various groups to step back from the edge of the precipice. Of course, if such a thing were to happen in Afghanistan, it would provide the foundation for another great counterinsurgency “success” like Iraq, but it’s very unlikely — 8 years of occupation has seen no major sectarian violence.

Short of that, 18 months will not suffice to eradicate the neo-Taliban — especially since all indications are that they’re still growing and that things are still in the phase where more counterinsurgency means more insurgency.

I do have some hopes that the increase in troop numbers will not lead to significant additional violence against Afghans because of partial implementation of Gen. McChrystal’s “kinder, gentler” rules of engagement — it’s worth noting that Germany’s August airstrike on a tanker near Kunduz that killed up to 145 people has already caused the resignation of their chief of staff and their defense minister at the time.

Although the lesson that killing civilians may be militarily counterproductive has been absorbed, it is still amazing how many lessons have not. In his introductory boilerplate, Obama attributed the rise of the Taliban to the Soviet occupation, the ensuing civil war, and the fact that American attention had “turned elsewhere;” by some prodigious effort, he has avoided learning that the rise might have had something to do with what America was doing before its attention “turned.” Similarly, he presents Pakistan’s turn to a more militaristic approach as a realization at long last that Pakistan is endangered by “extremism.” In fact, of course, Pakistan faced virtually no internal terrorist attacks before the 2001 war and subsequent ones are entirely a product of American and Pakistani military operations in the area.

Barack Obama was the only American president in living memory capable of absorbing the decidedly non-Western idea that in some cases doing nothing might be more productive than “doing something” — witness his immediate reaction to the election tumult in Iran — but by this point it seems all possibility of insight has drained out of his foreign policy. This lesson is apparently not one that Americans will ever learn.

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