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Ending the Afghan Slog

My latest for The National Interest, Ending the Afghan Slog, has posted. It pushes back on President Obama’s recent declaration that he was dealt a bad hand in Afghanistan and that we should therefore be patient, noting that it was he who declared “our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and doubled down on the fight.

As a consequence, we’ve lost more than twice the number of Americans in Obama’s three years than we did during the eight years of the war effort under Bush.

Yet we’ve failed to get appreciably closer to any of [Obama's announced] objectives.

[...]

Recent events have only exacerbated a gloomy situation. A stupidly orchestrated burning of Korans and other religious documents by American troops, combined with inflammatory rhetoric by Karzai and other Afghan leaders, helped ignite a spree of murder and mayhem. This was closely followed by a massacre of Afghan women and children by an American staff sergeant, apparently intoxicated and brain damaged. And the murder of American soldiers and marines by the very Afghan forces they’ve worked so hard to train has now become almost commonplace.

These incidents have poisoned opinion on both sides, perhaps permanently. Afghans who view Americans as occupiers and infidels with no respect for their society and culture feel vindicated-as do Americans who view Afghans as barbaric holdovers from bygone centuries.

Throughout it all, Karzai has proven craven and duplicitous, hedging his bets rather than leading to tamp down tensions. Most recently, he has demanded that NATO forces leave Afghanistan’s rural areas and that the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, scheduled for 2014, be moved up to 2013. No matter that they’re demonstrably unready.

The bottom line is that we are no closer to “getting Afghanistan right” than we were when Obama took office, and there’s little appetite among the American public, American military or American allies to stick it out.

More at the link.

Image: Obama and Afghanistan (by Latuff)

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Ending the Afghan Slog

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Hey Norm says:

    I was never a fan of doubling down…getting out sooner than later is the smartest course of action today.
    Of course then you have Romney who after 10 years doesn’t now enough to take a stand, and over the weekend advocated both staying and leaving in the same interview.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Sorry, Chief, but here Team Obama is a lot closer than thou to being correct.

    Look, I’m aware that cutting and running has a lot of appeal in various quarters, but truth be told it makes things a lot worse.

    Didn’t we learn the real lessons of the Vietnam War? No. 1: Don’t find yourself in a war if you’re not prepared to fight to win. No. 2: When you find yourself in a war with no prior clear objectives don’t cut and run; switch the objectives and follow through until those objectives are met. Millions upon millions of post-Saigon dead South Vietnamese would agree with that.

    Somalia and Beirut are more recent examples of how cutting and running exacerbates a bad situation into a worse situation with long-term negative ripple effects that outweigh the short-term vicissitudes and pain.

    I would make it a point to stay in Afghanistan until the military commanders on the ground tell me the Taliban no longer is capable from a military standpoint of destabilizing the Afghan government. Not later, not sooner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  4. Hey Norm says:

    “…Don’t find yourself in a war if you’re not prepared to fight to win…”

    Too bad you chicken-hawks didn’t think of that back in ’01.
    11 years later it’s hard to take naything you say seriously…especially when you are advocating staying there…well…pretty much forever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  5. CB says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    what if the nature of the conflict means we can never truly pacify the taliban? what then? forever war?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  6. Hey Norm says:

    TN2′s comment is so friggin’ Republican.
    Start a war you cannot finish. Then urge us to stay there forever in order to vindicate your blunder.
    Lower tax rates and explode the deficit, de-regulate and allow Wall Street to crash the economy…causing the perfect economic storm. Then urge even lower taxes and more de-regulation.
    What is it with Republicans and amnesia?
    Now they want to start a war with Iran.
    What a collection of fools.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  7. JohnMcC says:

    How interesting that the illustration on this Original Post is dated 2009. And related, that Dr Joyner apparently now finds fault with the decision reached after some 4 months of post-inaugeral consultations. I seem to recall that the ‘counter-insurgency’ faction of military planners was awash in glory at the ‘success’ of the Iraqi ‘surge’ at that time and that essentially the only criticism of the whole Af-Pak surge was from the left.

    The limits of counter insurgency in Afghanistan are now clear. The Afghan army has not reached it’s manpower goals. It seems undependable judging from the reports of shootings of NATO soldiers by uniformed Afghanis. I read recently that in a country with only 28% literacy that the ANA has only 10% literacy; one expects they are not attracting the best available. Mr Karzai seems to have been antagonized by the diplomats and generals there and to have an agenda that has been at odds with the President’s plans. The Pakistanis have been as much adversaries as allies.

    Yes, I think we should leave as quickly as possible. But there is no nobility in saying that Mr Obama has a unique blameworthiness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. CB says:

    the amnesia is most definitely frustrating, but what bothers me the most is the way every military engagement becomes sacrosanct. just because a conflict may appear intractable doesnt mean that it must be treated as such.

    i would like to see an argument more convincing and nuanced than ‘we cant leave because shut up thats why’

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. How many more people have to die for this insanity to come to an end of. this. We cannot solve everyone’s problems We got OBL and other Taliban leaders It`s time to get out and let them figure things out themselves. The sooner we leave the sooner they can recover. It`s time to focus on security here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Cycloptichorn says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    No. 2: When you find yourself in a war with no prior clear objectives don’t cut and run; switch the objectives and follow through until those objectives are met.

    Oh, great. ‘When losing, simply move goalposts until you feel you’ve won!’

    I would make it a point to stay in Afghanistan until the military commanders on the ground tell me the Taliban no longer is capable from a military standpoint of destabilizing the Afghan government. Not later, not sooner.

    This will never happen, ever. There is no other tactic than the mass murder of villagers that will ever make this happen; because a huge percentage of the people who live there WANT the Taliban in power. They will simply keep putting them in power and sending their kids off to die for them. And the more we kill, the worse it gets.

    There’s no military solution to this problem and foolish cheerleading by Keyboard Kommandos isn’t impressive to anyone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. Hey Norm says:

    “…Keyboard Kommandos…”

    +1

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC:

    How interesting that the illustration on this Original Post is dated 2009. And related, that Dr Joyner apparently now finds fault with the decision reached after some 4 months of post-inaugeral consultations.

    I’m not sure what your point is. I was against the escalation at the time.

    But there is no nobility in saying that Mr Obama has a unique blameworthiness.

    But I’m not arguing that. I explicitly acknowledge in the piece that “he inherited a mess from President Bush.” What I am saying, though, is that Obama is trying to act like he’s merely cleaning up Bush’s mess when, in fact, he more than doubled down on the effort of his own choosing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. anjin-san says:

    forever war?

    If you are a defense contractor, or one of their lackeys, sure. They are out playing golf, not getting their asses shot off. War is good for business.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Cycloptichorn says:

    @James Joyner:

    What I am saying, though, is that Obama is trying to act like he’s merely cleaning up Bush’s mess when, in fact, he more than doubled down on the effort of his own choosing.

    To be fair, he was in large part forced to do so by members of both political parties, during a time in which he had invested most of his political capital in health care reform.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. @James Joyner:

    Was the Afghan surge really his idea? Whitehouse micromanagement? Or was he listening to one particular group of officers?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. (My position has been that Obama should have been more audacious in withdrawal, and that I saw staying in as a defensive political move.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Gustopher says:

    How long after we withdraw before we need to invade again because of the Taliban and al Qaeda pose a threat.

    Of course, at this point it is either leave, or have a permanent occupation, and the permanent occupation hasn’t worked so well for the Isrealis in Palestine (or anyone else, for that matter). No good options.

    Perhaps we could convince al Qaeda and Taliban leaders that the real threat to Islam is the Godless Chinese, and steer them towards someone other than us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Dazedandconfused says:

    I agree, anyway.

    I have a serious quibble with the choice of the word “orchestrated” in the Koran burnings, but that’s damn small potatoes. The word strongly implies direction from up the chain.

    Doesn’t matter what the generals were advising him, Obama has to take the heat for this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Hey Norm says:

    “…the Taliban and al Qaeda pose a threat…”

    The Taliban never posed a threat to us…anymore than Saddam did.
    al Queda has been decimated…and if it manages to regain strength that resurgence could come from dozens of places around the globe.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Cycloptichorn: @john personna: I proceed from the old fashioned notion that the Commander-in-Chief is actually in charge of the military and gives it orders rather than vice versa.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    What I am saying, though, is that Obama is trying to act like he’s merely cleaning up Bush’s mess when, in fact, he more than doubled down on the effort of his own choosing.

    So JJ what should he have done a couple of years ago when his entire military establishment both here and in Afghanistan, his defense secretary, his secretary of state and the CIA all urged one last effort to stop what was a dangerously deteriorating situation at the time? Was he supposed to just shut the entire thing down or to miltarily stabilise the situation and begin an orderly pull out. In fact despite these incidents the situation has been stabilised from a military standpoint (it’s effectively stalemate) and we’ll be largely out of there by end of next year. So you tell us JJ what you would have done differently?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I proceed from the old fashioned notion that the Commander-in-Chief is actually in charge of the military and gives it orders rather than vice versa.

    Well then JJ I’d have to say that if you really believe this simplistic theory of military decision making then you’re either very stupid or very naive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Cycloptichorn says:

    @James Joyner:

    How quaint! As if any situation involving our government were as simple as you are making it out to be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. @James Joyner:

    Surely you accept this much: that if Obama made the policy up from whole cloth that was very much worse than being convinced by the wrong group. It changes the scale of error.

    That’s why I ask what, if any in-theater commanders were backing it.

    (We don’t rationally expect any commanders, General nor Chief, to be always right, but we should expect reasoned and supported positions.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @john personna:

    That’s why I ask what, if any in-theater commanders were backing it.

    I think Petraeus was head of central command (ie. The entire region) and Stanley McChrystal was the commander in Afghanistan. And both were pushing for it as I recall. In fact didn’t McChrystal put forward three options and they went for the middle one. Then after the McChrystal firing he put Petraeus in the Aghan slot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. @Gustopher:

    How long after we withdraw before we need to invade again because of the Taliban and al Qaeda pose a threat.

    We probably could have invaded the country a dozen times for what the occupation has cost us in blood, sweat, and treasure. After the third or fourth time, the new-new dictator would probably get the message about not making us come back a fifth time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner,

    I thought the piece was well-reasoned. Anything beyond hurting al-Qaeda was doomed to failure and President Obama made more than a few poor choices.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: @john personna: Once blood has been shed, the military brass are the last to urge giving up the fight. It’s up to civilian leaders to make national policy and overrule them.

    The thing is that I’m pretty sure Obama, Biden, Jones, et al. had reached the same conclusions as I had by 2009. I can’t believe Obama honestly believed that throwing 30,000 more troops at the fight was going to result in a radical turnaround. Rather, it was a cynical, political decision to avoid being cast as “weak” by the Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner:

    The thing is that I’m pretty sure Obama, Biden, Jones, et al. had reached the same conclusions as I had by 2009. I can’t believe Obama honestly believed that throwing 30,000 more troops at the fight was going to result in a radical turnaround. Rather, it was a cynical, political decision to avoid being cast as “weak” by the Republicans.

    Bingo. It was ass-covering for President Obama and face-saving for the U.S. which can’t been seen to “lose” a war. One day we’ll get a leak equivalent to the Pentagon Papers and learn the Pentagon and White House were fully aware the Taliban could not be defeated militarily.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    Rather, it was a cynical, political decision to avoid being cast as “weak” by the Republicans.

    You’re completely ignoring the fact that at the time the military situation was spiralling out of control. And you’re making suppositions about what the president believed was possible. And I don’t disagree that certainly Biden and probably Obama had decided it was a lost cause but just so I get this absolutely clear since you as usual don’t give a clear answer, in your opinion Obama in the circumstances prevailing at the time should have over-ruled Gates, Clinton, Petraeus, McChrystal and co and evacuated the country within a limited time frame…say six months. Is this correct?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I think, at bare minimum, he should have declined to escalate the war and gradually began a handoff to the Afghans. I’m not sure that a precipitous withdrawal was politically possible. But continuing the Bush policy minus would likely have saved hundreds of American lives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. mike says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Instead the President went the other way and backed Gates/Clinton/Petraeus etc… and later made Petraeus the CIA boss and sacked McChrystal for criticizing him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  33. Brummagem Joe says:

    @mike:

    sacked McChrystal for criticizing him.

    He did not sack McChrystal for criticising him. He sacked him for an egregious breach of discipline. You obviously don’t understand the difference.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  34. @James Joyner:

    So, did you just excuse generals for asking a bad policy, because that is their nature?

    While “the buck stops” that does not exonerate architects, and it does actually mitigate for an executive who listened to people who went to academies over Harvard Law.

    These guys write books on fourth generation warfare or whatever. They are supposed to be the go-to

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Generals are experts in tactics and strategy, not in assessing the national interest. The nature of their task is to say, “Yes, sir! Three bags full, sir!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think, at bare minimum, he should have declined to escalate the war and gradually began a handoff to the Afghans. I’m not sure that a precipitous withdrawal was politically possible. But continuing the Bush policy minus would likely have saved hundreds of American lives.

    Once again JJ you don’t give an clear answer. Firstly you seem to forget that Bush had already escalated the war by sending about 40,000 additional troops to the country in the six months before he left office which increased the force from around 35,000 to over 70,000. This was not enough to stop the deteriorating military situation which is why McChrystal and Petraeus asked for further reinforcements and after a lot of agonising Obama gave them what they asked for. I’ve no doubt partly with the purpose of demonstrating they were wrong but guess what that’s how political leadership functions in a democratic society. You do have a PhD in political science don’t you? You admit we couldn’t leave precipitously and the military situation was going to hell in a handbasket so the options were:

    1. reinforce/stabilise and organise an orderly exit

    2. recognise failure and evacuate the country within a short timeframe

    3. your option… stay there let the military situation deteriorate …..and then what?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    The nature of their task is to say, “Yes, sir! Three bags full, sir!”

    Are you serious? Do you think George Marshall or Douglas MacArthur said yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. Do you think Petraeus is completely non political any more than Colin Powell was non political.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. @James Joyner:

    The surge was tactics and strategy in an occupation.

    If there was actually an endless supply of resistance they should have been on the scene to know.

    They were the ones running hearts and minds campaigns.

    I actually agree that we should have left earlier but think this idea that we should excuse the military for not recognizing a slog is ludicrous.

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  39. Just heard this meme on tv, that generals could not know that they could not win. Only politicians could know.

    This is a deplorable flip from the 2000′s “support the troops.” It has become “don’t trust the troops to know conditions beneath their boots.”

    The reasoning is transparent, it’s they way to put more than “the buck stops” on Obama. It’s a way to paint it as all him. Perversely when he listens, it’s all him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. Brummagem Joe says:

    @john personna:

    Just heard this meme on tv, that generals could not know that they could not win. Only politicians could know.

    You mean the generals are no longer omniscient? Petraeus is not longer the Delphic Oracle? Joe Biden is now the expert on counter insurgency ops in Afghanistan? I don’t know about you but as far as I’m concerned JJ’s credentials as a serious politico/military analyst have just taken some direct hits with a series of statements which (given his background) are to put it politely hard to believe.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: @john personna: The nature of military culture is one of inertia. Generals tend to advocate refraining from initiating conflict but, once engaged, to advocate throwing in everything we have. Once blood is spilled and, especially, we’ve been there a while, they almost never advocate pulling out short of “victory.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    Once blood is spilled and, especially, we’ve been there a while, they almost never advocate pulling out short of “victory.”

    Of course Generals do not predict their own defeat. However, this is far short of saying they just take orders from civilians. Your characterisation of the US military decision making process (which is essentially war by committee) and the role of generals in it is totally preposterous.

    Secondly you have avoided responding to the points I made @ 15.59 (what a surprise….facts are difficult things aren’t they?)…those were the only options so tell me clearly which you’d have gone for because you’re tap dancing all around it. Obama just took the least bad option in the prevailing circumstances imho (and I think we should have left there eight years ago!)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Dr Joyner, I salute your dogged idealism about the relationship between Presidents and Generals. Especially admirable of you to have held it in the face of so much that is known about new (and young) Presidents — say Mr Lincoln or Mr Kennedy — and their military chiefs — say Gen McClellan or the Bay of Pigs. Your mother is proud of you I’m sure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. Ben Wolf says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Obama just took the least bad option in the prevailing circumstances imho (and I think we should have left there eight years ago!)

    Obama’s choice wasn’t worth the death of one american soldier, period.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Obama’s choice wasn’t worth the death of one american soldier, period.

    Thanks for the latest piety but it doesn’t have much to do with reality does it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  46. Ben Wolf says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Still pining for that job with the Weekly Standard, eh chickenhawk? After all, piety and not sacrificing lives meaninglessly is for stupid liberals, huh? I mean hey, avoiding piety is definitely worth a flippant post disregarding the shattered families of those soldiers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  47. @James Joyner:

    You basically free generals of responsibility by saying of course they’re stupid, of course they have no self-awareness.

    Should we add a new class to West Point? How to detect an endless slog?

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  48. (Generals have been playing Whack-a-Mole in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years. They should be smart enough to understand that, and to communicate that. If they are keeping their mouths shuts, and not reporting up-channel, they are not doing their jobs.)

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  49. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Still pining for that job with the Weekly Standard, eh chickenhawk?

    Yes I’m sure I’d fit in very well at the Weekly Standard. LOL. Pious platitudes may make the immature feel good about themselves but they are of no practical value or particular interest in addressing a situation of this complexity.

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