President Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) was eagerly anticipated. I first reported from Afghanistan in early 2006 that the war was being lost, so any new plan to address the problems is at least three years late. This is not Mr. Obama’s fault, but it is his problem.
During his March 27 announcement, Mr. Obama said that critical assets were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq. That’s true, but it’s not the only reason why Afghanistan is in trouble. For a variety of reasons - history, geography, people - Iraq is remarkably different than AfPak.
Most Americans know that Mr. Obama did not support the invasion of Iraq. But what should also be acknowledged, as long as some are dwelling on the past, is that Mr. Obama did not support the surge. Had we followed his advice, we would have lost the Iraq war. Other members in his current crew wanted to partition Iraq, an idea met with incredulity by the Iraqis.
This is a major point. Not only was Mr. Obama and crew appallingly ill-informed about the state of progress and possibilities in Iraq, but as late as July 2008 he was still opposing the troop surge, still trumpeting his wisdom in opposing the war, and in fact seemed to want Iraq to fail. Today he is careful in characterizing any success in Iraq, lest it be interpreted correctly that he was wrong about the facts, or worse still, understood the facts but misrepresented them. This administration carries severe credibility burdens concerning issues of foreign policy and national security.
The AfPak speech was Mr. Obama’s first chance to demonstrate that from his new perch he can see and more clearly understand the challenges of Iraq and AfPak. In fact, immediately after the March 27 speech, some pundits inaugurated Mr. Obama’s new strategy with plaudits such as “bold.”
Where’s the bold?
The proposal to spend $1.5 billion annually on aid and assistance to Pakistan might sound impressive, but we spend that much in two weeks on Afghanistan, and the costs are about to skyrocket with additional troops. The fact that Mr. Obama’s strategy included Pakistan makes sense, but the idea is old. Mr. Obama is eager to make distinctions between his strategy and that of his predecessor (he didn’t resist taking rhetorical swipes at former President George W. Bush), but often those are distinctions without a difference.
Combat or training - what’s it going to be? We have already seen how the strategy to prematurely stand up Iraqi security forces while thinly spreading U.S. troops resulted in large swaths of territory under the control of countless militias and al Qaeda. As for Afghanistan, even with the additional 21,000 U.S. troops, we still don’t have the manpower to succeed at either combat or training, much less both simultaneously.
The president announced a goal of 216,000 Afghan security force members by 2011. This falls well short of assessments by the U.S. military that a security force of 400,000 is needed to secure Afghanistan.
Today there are 80,000 Afghan police officers and 82,000 soldiers in various stages of readiness. Mr. Obama’s goal to train 54,000 new soldiers and police officers in 33 months, which equals about 1,600 recruits per month, is hardly bold. At that rate, we will not reach 400,000 for about 12 years. We still enjoy widespread approval from the Afghans - I recently drove about a thousand miles around the country without soldiers - but year by year, mistake by mistake, our support is eroding.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told me privately that his No. 1 concern is that we will lose support from the Afghan people. Few Americans understand Afghanistan better than Mr. Gates.
While we still are widely respected, or at a minimum tolerated, the Taliban is widely hated, but make no mistake - year by year, they grow stronger. We can kill thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters per year while alienating more Afghans with increased kinetic operations. Time is a critical factor in this war: The longer we spend dragging this out, the more unwelcome we will become. Time and terrain are among the two biggest advantages belonging mostly to the enemy.
There is little wisdom or boldness in the new strategy. It’s more like a 50/50 mix of hot coffee and cold cream, a compromise between national interests and domestic politics that makes the strategy neither one nor the other.
Like Mr. Bush before him, Mr. Obama is trying to win the AfPak war on the cheap while minimizing political risks. He’s playing safe, and any truly experienced combat leader will tell you that the surest way to lose a lot of people is to try to save all of them. Bold was the president who committed to putting a man on the moon before the end of that decade. Our current president has not committed to the relatively much easier and straightforward task of creating 400,000 Afghan security personnel during the course of his first term.