What is America's best military strategy for the war in Afghanistan?
There are numerous military commentators, in the news, that have freely and publicly provided President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates with the best Afghanistan military strategy. Most of these suggested strategies are thoughtful and provide plausible reasons for the position advocated; however, as a group, they contradict each other. I have a preference (I lean toward strategies favored by our military leaders), but I don't think that I know which strategy is best. Best for me would be the strategy that gives the U.S. the optimal chance of winning. But which strategy does that?
My purpose in this article is not to advocate a best military strategy for Afghanistan; my purpose is to discuss the question, which strategy will Obama select and how will he select it?
My prediction is that he will use a policy development process that I will label triangulation.
Political triangulation was devised by senior Clinton advisor Dick Morris and successfully used by President Bill Clinton in his reelection to a second term. Triangulation as devised by Morris and implemented by Clinton was the act of adopting political policy that was “above and between” policies advocated by the political right and the political left. Clinton was essentially forced into this strategy when the Democrats lost control of congress in the 1994 midterm elections.
One of the most widely cited features of Clinton's triangulation strategy was his declaration that the "Era of big government is over." When it came to the budget, Clinton favored spending cuts and a balanced budget (Republicans liked that). Clinton also made a great show of protecting Medicare (Democrats liked that, at least then).
Politically, the purpose of triangulation is rather obvious. It is an attempt to avoid being forced to accept either side of a controversial two-sided issue; or of a two-sided conflict. It is a type of compromise, a strategy as old as politics itself. Some people still call it fence-straddling. But triangulation is more than just simple defensive fence-straddling, it is fence-straddling promoted into an offensive strategy. The triangulated position is pushed and marketed as being better, “above” the two base positions: In a sense, the apex in a triangle of conflict.
The concept of triangulation can be illustrated in a simple case where the base parts are composed of single elements, although this is clearly an over-simplification.
Legislatures sometimes allow for casting three types of votes, Yes, No, Present. To depict this as a triangulation, Yes/No become the opposing base parts, and Present becomes the apex. How is a vote of Present possibly seen as “above” or better than a vote of Yes, or No? In one sense, it clearly isn't: In practice, a vote of Present affects the vote tally in the same way that a vote of No does; It is not a Yes, and only Yes votes count toward the passage of a bill.
In another sense a vote of Present can be posed as “above” a vote of Yes, or No. The reason most often advanced by the person who votes Present is that he really didn't want to vote against the bill, but he simply couldn't support the bill as presented. Hence, this choice is portrayed, by the vote caster, as a principled choice, and in this sense can be portrayed as “above” or better than either a Yes or No vote.
The reason most often advanced by political opponents of a person who votes Present is that he wishes to dodge a difficult issue. Hence, the choice is seen as being based upon political consideration. I think political consideration is the most likely answer, for the simple reason that despite any high-sounding justification, a Present vote has the same final effect as a No vote.
Barack Obama voted Present 129 times (out of approximately 4000 votes) during his eight years in the Illinois Senate. This became an issue during the 2008 Democrat primary:
“But the practice has gained national attention after Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned whether Sen. Barack Obama used present votes 129 times over eight years as an Illinois state senator to duck tough votes.
On issue after issue that really were hard to explain or understand, you voted present . . . And anytime anyone raises that, there's always some kind of explanation," Clinton said in her most pronounced attack, during a Jan. 21, 2008, Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.”
– Reference (1) at bottom.
It has been suggested, by Hillary Clinton and others, that President Obama votes Present (or takes equivalent action) to avoid making difficult political decisions. As a candidate, Barack Obama accused Hillary Clinton of triangulating, but now the shadow of political triangulation is falling on Obama's evaluation of Afghanistan war strategy.
Many commentators in the media have based their analysis of the Afghanistan war choices, either implicitly or explicitly, on the following potential setup for triangulation.
Strategy 1. Go all in for the win. This is the strategy that has been recommended by our military. It is the strategy recommended by General Stan McChrystal (top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan), and supported by General Petraeus (McChrystal's immediate superior) and by Admiral Mullen (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs). It will require additional troops and the willingness to commit to a long and difficult conflict. The technical, military term being used for this strategy is Counterinsurgency (COIN). It is founded on the same principles as the Petraeus-led strategy that brought us victory in Iraq; necessarily adjusted, of course, to a much more different, and difficult, theater of war. It is not a panacea, and no thoughtful person supposes that it is. Time (enough time, usually a protracted amount) is a critical element in this strategy.
Strategy 2. Pull all of our troops out of Afghanistan. This is the strategy that is often referred to by critics of Obama and the Democrats as the cut-and-run strategy. Immediate withdrawal of all troops was certainly the military strategy that Obama stated that he favored for Iraq when he was candidate Obama. Both Obama and the Democrats referred to the war in Afghanistan as “the good war”; and constantly criticized George Bush for “taking his eye off the ball” and for fighting an unjustified and distracting war in Iraq. However, now that Obama is President, the heretofore “good war” is presenting a major problem; not surprisingly, now that the “good war” is no longer just a campaign phrase, its “goodness” is being called into serious question by Obama and the Democrats. Time is obviously involved in this strategy. Troops and equipment can require a considerable amount of time to be withdrawn.
Strategy 3. Triangulate between Strategy 1 and Strategy 2. Don't pull completely out; but don't go all in, in the sense of Strategy 1. The technical, military term being used for this strategy is Counter-terrorism. Although, I think it is an unjust slam on this type of military strategy that it is apparently being considered, not so much as an essential method for victory, but as a potential way to avoid an all-in commitment to victory. One of the more questionable aspects concerning the use of this as the Afghanistan strategy is the fact that although General McChrystal is the acknowledged, leading military expert in this strategy, he has not recommended this as being appropriate for Afghanistan. Time is obviously an important item to consider in this triangulation. Is there a stipulated time schedule to achieve some stated results? What is the exit strategy, and when?
So what strategy will President Obama choose and how? Let's examine the choices.
Strategy 1. Go all-in for the win. As proposed by General McChrystal it calls for three major commitments:
1) An all-in Counterinsurgency effort. By its nature this effort can, and probably would be protracted. Here is the essence of Counterinsurgency spelled-out in simple terms in the current U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (it can be ordered from Amazon.com):
“1-4. Long-term success in COIN [Counterinsurgency] depends upon the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government's rule [emphasis mine]...Over time, counterinsurgents aim to enable a country or regime to provide the security and rule of law that allow establishment of social services and growth of economic activity...COIN thus involves the application of national power in the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure fields and disciplines. Political and military leaders and planners should never underestimate its scale and complexity; moreover, they should recognize that the Armed Forces cannot succeed in COIN alone. [emphasis mine]”
Counterinsurgency acknowledges, more than some other forms of military action, the close connection and dependence upon a supporting political strategy. Without a firm, committed, and effective political strategy (supported by the President) undergirding the military strategy, Counterinsurgency cannot succeed. The essential political element of war was famously stated by the Prussian General, and war theorist, von Clausewitz, in his book, On War: “We see, therefore, in the first place, that under all circumstances war is to be regarded not as an independent thing, but as a political instrument...”
2) Large additional commitment of troops. Defense and congressional officials have suggested that the request could be for about 30,000 more troops. Others have suggested the number may go as high as 45,000.
3) An indefinite time commitment: “[McChrystal]...we face both a short term and long term fight. The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive...in the near-term (next 12 months)” McChrystal defines the near-term as 12 months, probably a synonym in this context for short-term. In his assessment, he does not try to quantify long-term.
– Reference (2) at bottom.
I think it highly unlikely that Obama and his political (not military) advisors will accept, in total, General McChrystal's assessment and recommendation. Why? Obama opposed the war in Iraq; Also, Obama opposed the surge in Iraq (committing additional troops) which was the beginning of the Petraeus-led Counterinsurgency. Obama and the Democrats strongly opposed the idea of an indefinite U.S. Commitment to the Iraq war. But how can you have a rational, coherent Counterinsurgency strategy with a time limit? The insurgents will simply laugh at your stupidity, and wait you out.
Strategy 2. Pull all of our troops out of Afghanistan. Politically for Obama, this would be a very applauded move by the political left. But the political right would excoriate Obama, and the characterization (already suspected by many) that Obama and the Democrats are soft on National Defense would haunt Democrats politically, probably for decades. The Taliban would undoubtedly swarm into Afghanistan, take it over, and provide a revamped haven for terrorists and terrorists' training. Al Qaeda would gloat about defeating the toothless, paper tiger, and America would look increasingly weak to both allies and enemies. Not a good scenario. I think it is highly unlikely that Obama will adopt this strategy.
That leaves us with a triangulated strategy.
Strategy 3. Triangulate between Strategy 1 and Strategy 2. For Obama, this is likely to be viewed as his best political choice. The initial political rhetoric for this has already been put in place by Obama, Joe Biden, and John Kerry. An essential feature, very likely, will be the insistence on methods of progress measurement which will include requirements for Afghanistan to reach certain progress goals within a given time period. This is a subtle, but rather obvious way to place a time limit on the conflict, if the effort isn't looking good. Never mind that the notion of time-limiting military action against serious insurgents, coupled with having that time-limit made public (leaked or otherwise) is utter nonsense.
But, with this strategy, Obama and the Democrats can continue to insist that they are tough on terror, committed to the effort in Afghanistan, and can be trusted in matters of National Security. On the other hand they can avoid committing more troops and perhaps even reduce the number of boots-on-the-ground, at a time when polls show that American support for sending more troops to Afghanistan is trending downward.
I think Obama will triangulate.
I am afraid that few people fully appreciate the importance of this decision to the future security and freedom of America. There is one other thing that we can do besides watch: Pray.